Sunday, 6 December 2009

Paranormal Activity (2007)

I've been looking forward to this film for a while and by the time the trailer was released in Australia - basically a stream of hyperbolic pull-quotes from various newspapers, websites and probably your mum, calling it the "scariest film ever made" - the hype had reached such epidemic proportions that it nearly turned me off the whole thing. Going in I was naturally a bit skeptical, but luckily I really enjoyed it, probably the best example of... well, I used to call them Blair-Witch-style films, but there are so many of them now that that comparison seems a bit quaint and old-fashioned, like referring to modern video games as Space Invaders. It's a documentary-style horror film. You know what I'm talking about.

Here is a plot synopsis: Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston) set up a video camera in their bedroom in order to gather proof of some ghostly activity in their new house. During the day Micah films their conversations as they discuss their situation and what they are going to do about it. During the night he mounts the camera to a tripod and films their bed as they sleep. These sequences are where the movie really shines; time-lapse photography punctuated with ghostly happenings that are breathlessly suspenseful. At around 90 minutes it's the perfect length, it could have easily worn out the formula if it had gone on much longer.

I liked that the two leads weren't Hollywood actors. They look like normal people you might actually see or talk to in real life. They are both good actors but there is a rawness and a realism to their performances that makes them a lot more believable. You aren't constantly aware that they are annoying movie characters like in Cloverfield and the acting never gets as hammy as in The Blair Witch Project. Micah is a bit of a douchebag but he's a believable douchebag. It's understandable that he'd be really fascinated and excited by it at first, and then later that he'd want to stay and protect his girlfriend and try to take care of things himself. It's less understandable why he would sit on all that footage instead of showing it to somebody. I bet Ghost Hunters would pay a fortune for that shit.

A couple of times they call in a psychic who is a pretty funny character. He tells her that the presence in their house isn't a ghost, it's a demon, which blows because that means it's completely random and malicious, and pretty much anything you do will just piss it off more. Sucks to be you. Also, leaving the house won't do jack because it's tied to Katie's presence (a pretty clever way of dodging the usual plothole of the couple just packing their shit and leaving the house). Then he gives her the number of his demonologist friend and leaves. They are unable to contact him and, faced with some serious feces/fan interaction, they call in the psychic again. He basically says "I'm pissing this thing off more by just being here. You're on your own." and leaves. What an asshole!

This film also does a great job of integrating the camera into the story and the Paranormal Activities are kept on such a a small scale that you can (usually) understand why they would pick up a camera and try to document it instead of running for their lives. I must have shouted out "Just put the camera down, you fucking idiot!" only half a dozen times or so, which is a new record. Even more importantly, the camera is kept relatively steady. Micah actually holds the camera like a normal person; pointing it at his subject; panning and zooming steadily and sparingly. Then during the night scenes, when most of the spooky shit happens, the camera is mounted on a tripod. Hallelujah! Nice to have a film that doesn't assume modern audiences won't fall asleep from boredom if the camera isn't leaping around like a Jack Russell terrier. At the showing I went to you could hear a pin drop during those night scenes. They were as engrossed as fuck.

I had a couple of minor problems with the film. There was a part where Micah spread talcum powder on the floor to try and get evidence of the demon's presence and, well, they looked like oversized bird feet. Maybe they thought that hooves were too cliche, but I couldn't shake the feeling that she was being haunted by Big Bird. Also, I wasn't really happy with the way the film ended, with Katie covered in blood and the bad CG etc. It was too much. I would have preferred if they had cut out that final part and ended things a little more ambiguously. I'm sure it would have pissed off a lot of teenagers, but they're too busy giggling during the dramatic scenes and twittering their facebooks or whatever so fuck 'em.

This film probably isn't for everyone. In fact, I know it's not for everyone because when it finished I heard a guy say incredulously "Was that supposed to be scary?" Sorry, guy. Also, you probably won't like it if go into it expecting a huge payoff. About an hour in a oujia board catches on fire and this qualifies as one of the more over-the-top moments of the film. Those people who hated The Blair Witch Project and can't get over the double-artifice of the fake documentary style probably won't like it either. It worked for me, though. I don't think I've ever been so scared watching so little happen. If you can buy into the fake documentary style then I think you will enjoy it and movie magic will happen etc. You will believe a door can move.

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