In this brave new world of digital cameras and youtube we’ve been hearing people talk at length about the notion of amateurs making films in their backyards completely removed from “the system.” I’ve never really been a believer in the concept. Sure there have been a handful of very good micro-budget movies in the past few years but the chances of them really breaking out into the public at large seems to be about the same as they were before all this new technology when people like Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, and Richard Linklater put out similarly budgeted movies to similar success. But, if there’s ever been a clear example of the new system working it’s got to be the new thriller Paranormal Activity, which was made in seven days on a budget of fifteen thousand dollars by someone with no formal film training.
The film takes place entirely in the house of Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston), a young couple that is “engaged to be engaged.” Katie has been hearing strange noises in the night and feels it is part of a pattern of odd occurrences she’s been sensing occasionally since she was a young girl. Intrigued, Michah buys a professional grade camera he hopes will help them to better document what’s been going on, especially while the two of them are asleep. As their project goes on they do indeed start to pick up some strange occurrences on the tape like a door moving on its own and a few odd noises. They are not sure how to react to what’s been going on but as the nights go by the events the camera picks up start to become more and more threatening.
This is essentially a haunted house movie, but in a way it isn’t. It’s established early on (by a psychic) that the force behind this disturbance is not a ghost, but a demon. Further it is established that this demon is not linked to the house the couple is living in, rather it has been targeting Katie since long before she found her way to this luxurious San Diego residence. This is a very smart bit of exposition because it eliminates the thing that almost always sinks haunted house movies: the notion that the characters could solve all their problems by simply moving. The choice of a demon rather than a ghost is also smart, something about the idea of a demon (which is distinguished as being a non human force as opposed to a deceased human spirit) just conjures up creepier images in the mind.
This plot is actually remarkably similar to a horror movie of a much different kind from earlier this year, Drag Me to Hell. Both films are about women who find themselves targeted by demons and must seek assistance from various paranormal “experts.” The difference of course is that Drag Me to Hell revels in its silliness; it’s a fun, loud, movie and all of its thrills were right in your face. There’s nothing wrong with any of that and I don’t make this comparison to disparage Sam Raimi’s film, but Paranormal Activity takes almost the exact opposite approach with a similar concept. The approach in Oren Peli’s film is decidedly minimalist in comparison. Here the titular activity comes slowly into the film, the demon does things that are clearly beyond logical explanation but which seem oddly more disturbing because they are done in a way that is still oddly close to reality. Of course this approach would have quickly become tedious if Peli had remained too subtle for too long, thankfully he knows just when to start making the demon more daring in his appearances. This is not like the Blair Witch Project where they wait until pretty much the last shot to actually have something happen.
Which I suppose brings us to the fact that this is yet another “found footage” movie. Ever since the aforementioned phenomenon of a film there have been a lot of these movies, and after each one gets made everyone feels like they’ve just seen the last film that will get away with the format before it becomes lame, and yet more and more come out to prove there’s still life in the technique. Between [REC], Cloverfield, and this film the ante just seems to keep going up. Perhaps the main appeal of filming a movie like this is that it requires less of a tech budget and less formal training to accomplish, after all, when trying to emulate an amateur a certain lack of professionalism actually helps rather than hurts your film and even the more heavily produced examples of the genre like Cloverfield are cheaper than their competitors. To a mainstream audience crappy film stock is a pretty big distraction unless there’s a narrative reason why what they’re looking at is a lot uglier than the latest Platinum Dunes splatterfest. But let’s not take that to mean that anyone could have made a movie like Paranormal Activities, because trust me, everyone is trying and there’s a reason why Oren Peli’s movie is the one in more than a thousand theaters right now and everyone else’s isn’t.
Of course, like many types of genre film, these found footage films need to establish their rules early on. For example, both Cloverfield and [REC] took the approach of having the movies (sort of) play out in real time, with cuts only occurring when the camera operator choose to turn his device off. This film and The Blair Witch Project instead choose to suggest that the people who found the footage edited the film together. Perhaps the bigger (and decidedly more meta) decision that must be made is how to present the film. The Blair Witch Project made the mistake of presenting the material as if it were a real documentary telling an authentic story even though it was quite obviously fake. The thing is, absolutely no one really thought that movie was real, they were just having fun playing along with the fiction the filmmakers had created. However, there were plenty of people who thought they were surrounded by morons who really did believe it and the result was a backlash perpetrated by those who thought they were smarter than everybody else. That’s why Paramount pictures has been pretty carefully avoiding any claims that this is anything other than a scary movie and selling the project more on the communal experience of seeing it in crowed theater full of screaming people. However, once people have entered the theater the movie still operates in a way that will accentuate the illusion of reality. The film actually has no studio logo at the beginning (an almost unprecedented rarity) and even more surprisingly it has no credits, something I didn’t even know was legal in this day and age.
Something that probably gives this a leg up over its underground competition is that it has managed to snare a pair of actors that know what they’re doing. In many ways, trying to act in a mockumentary seems to be as distinct from acting in a scripted film as acting in a scripted film is to acting on stage. The people acting in movies like this have to achieve a special level of naturalism while working with dialogue that is not flashy and they don’t have the luxury of perfect camera angles. Moreover, the actors themselves need to be both anonymous and average looking, while still trying to make the audience empathize with them. Brian De Palma’s film Redacted gives an excellent example of what not to do when acting in a movie like this, and yet there’s probably yet to be an example of such acting that’s so overwhelmingly good as to provide a high point to compare other films by. Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston (the characters share their names with the actors) are for the most part just the kind of actors that a film like this needs. Both look just like the kind of people you’d run into on the street, they talk like average Joes, but they also have personalities you can sort of latch onto. Featherston in particular makes for a very pleasant screen presence, she feels like that friend of a friend you have and this kind of familiarity helps breed a lot of empathy for the character.
There are however some problems that do hold this movie back from minimalist perfection. In particular, I was a bit annoyed by the way the characters acted in order to deal with they’re situation. Katie desperately wants to call a demonologist to help with the situation while wants to dissect the situation further, mainly through the use of the camera. Both of these seem like workable plans, but neither of them are mutually exclusive, and yet each of them is openly hostile to the other’s plan. Micah’s refusal to call the demonologist is particularly frustrating, I can understand why he’d be wary of the notion when the haunting seemed less than real, but there’s a certain point where the existence of this phenomenon becomes undeniable and at that point the two would do any and everything that they need to do in order to solve their problem. Even after this point Micah refuses to call the one person who by all accounts can deal with the situation, claiming that he’s going to deal with the problem himself. What? It’s a frickin’ demon, what the hell does this guy expect to do? Punch it? And Katie’s refusal to examine the video evidence is at times just as silly. You’d think that these people would be desperate enough to accept any help they can get and the notion that there’s some sort of conflict of interest between the two approaches doesn’t really make any sense.
Another problematic element emerges when the movie begins to try to explain what’s been going on. Throughout the movie, there are a lot of hints and clues as to a larger explanation of what’s been going on to Katie. Other cases are found, a history is established and photographs are found. None of these are particularly obtrusive except that they’re complete red herrings that don’t really add up to much of anything. The nature of this haunting is never really explained, in fact that give the movie a lot of its creepy feeling. In fact I’m glad they never explain the nature of this beast, but in establishing a mystery without a solution they are sort of setting the audience up for an anticlimax. Don’t get me wrong, the ending itself is quite good and the last shot is a real doozy, but it feels particularly abrupt because they’ve made it seem like we’re owed a few more twists before this finale.
Is Paranormal Activity just a product of clever marketing? No, it’s the real deal. But that’s not to say that it’s some sort of classic of the horror genre. The movie is not a perfect gem, nor was ever likely to be one, there’s a certain risk/reward payoff to filming a movie like this and this has gotten about as much out of the concept as it possibly could. Like The Blair Witch Project before it, this will probably be remembered more as a triumph of marketing than as a triumph of filmmaking, but the people in the marketing department aren’t rainmakers and this triumph of marketing would not have been possible were it not for the important fact the Paranormal Activity works. Oh, and don’t listen to the people telling you that this is best enjoyed when watching it with a theater full of screaming douchebags, I saw it at three in the afternoon in a theater with maybe ten people in it and it worked just fine.
***1/2 out of Four