Paranormal Activity (review)

Not So Scary

So I finally saw this Paranormal Activity flick that all the kids are into today, and all I could conclude was, Really? They think this is pants-wetting scary? My fellow professional film watchers seem to think so, too, which is — heh — truly frightening. Hyperbole is, perhaps, the most prominent stock in trade for film critics, but I’m sorta mystified to see comments like “it’s the sleeper hit that makes audiences too petrified to ever sleep again” and “one of the scariest movies in years… absolutely bone-chilling” and “the faint of heart need not apply.”

Cuz, far as I could see, Activity is about as terrifying as an amusement park spook house: you know, the kind in which fake skeletons pop out at you from obvious nooks in the wall and spray-can spiderwebs drip over your head in an attempt to freak you out. Which is to say: It does indeed sometimes offer a momentary cheap fright, the kind that instantly makes you laugh at yourself for being taken in by it. And it’s true: it must also be said that this makes Activity scarier than most of what passes for cinematic “horror” these days. But have none of these folks peeing their pants and unable to sleep at night seen, say, The Exorcist? Or Alien? Or Open Water? Or Cronenberg’s The Fly? Or Poltergeist, the movie to which Activity owes its biggest nod, even bigger than the oft-cited Blair Witch Project? (Not to mention movies less conventionally considered “horror,” such as Threads and A Clockwork Orange.) Does no one else see that the few genuinely creepy and original moments here are so few and far between that this would have been far more intriguing as a YouTube short, boiling those moments down to a snappy 30 minutes or so, than as a feature film?

I applaud filmmaker Oren Peli, honestly I do, for making a film as effective and as inventive as this one is — and for one striking such a chord with audiences, even if I don’t entirely agree with them — for less than the cost of a cheap car. This is a smack that Hollywood so richly deserves, a reminder that successful movies, even by the not-art measure of money, are not about CGI and overpaid movie stars and preposterous exaggeration but about things far simpler and far more down-to-earth than that. Perhaps the most effective element of Activity is its setting: Peli shot in his own San Diego home, as mundane a location as a haunted house movie has even capitalized on, to ramp up the scariness. Much of what makes the movie works, where it does — as 20something couple Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) cope with the vicious, invisible entity that is torturing them — is the notion that this really could be your home, this blandly decorated, not-Hollywood tract house. This is an ordinary house — oh, so ordinary — and Katie and Micah are oh-so ordinary people, which includes being so annoying and irrational that mostly you want to smack them, and it all makes the nonsense of demonic haunting at least somewhat more plausible.

Katie’s been bothered by this demon all her life, wherever she’s lived: a psychic (Mark Fredrichs) tells her, “You cannot run from this — it will follow you,” which eliminates the one obvious solution to most haunted house stories, the Get Out solution. Micah’s a techno geek who is getting a bit of a thrill out of setting up his camcorder to watch what happens when they sleep and watching the results the next morning (and yes, he jokes about letting the camcorder record other aspects of their relationship in the bedroom; it would have been unbelievable if he didn’t). That’s smart stuff, from a storytelling perspective. And it’s enough to make the movie worth seeing, though perhaps not worth paying multiplex prices for. In fact, it might even be scarier were you to watch it on your own TV, in your own living room, with your house or apartment building creaking and moaning and making all those weird noises that any building unavoidably makes.

The entire film consists of what Micah’s camcorder captures — weird noises in the middle of the night, hanging lighting fixtures swinging for no good reason, and so on — and this 21st-century take on cinema verité is all sorts of appropriate, authentic, and inevitable: from reality TV to YouTube to just how we all goof around with making our own instant cinema with our geek toys these days, there was no way in hell — heh — that we weren’t going to see a movie like this one from a filmmaker coming outta nowhere. Yeah, Cloverfield did something similar last year, though it was aping what Activity is, with its Hollywood-sized budget and subject matter, not an actual example of it. (Blair Witch, 10 years ago, was even less like either film, and more like the put-on of a mockumentary; that is, it’s more deliberate in feel, and less spontaneous.) Still, Cloverfield is a far better film than Paranormal Activity, which could serve as a reminder to filmmakers like Peli who think to storm the stronghold of Hollywood: Just because the studios have given in to excess of late doesn’t mean their successes don’t have lessons to teach. Telling a gripping story is still the most important thing a movie must do. Just because some movies can’t do that with an overload of FX doesn’t mean that a movie lacking them automatically does, either.

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