Saturday, October 17, 2009

Paranormal Activity (2009)

When you have a horror movie without stars in it and without a standard premise for a marketing hook, it becomes necessary to market it as "The Scariest Movie of All Time". And then when when people go to see it and it's a perfectly respectable scary movie, but not so scary that everybody watching it has their eyeballs explode in terror and the ushers all quit because the seats are covered in the aftermath of everybody shitting their pants, then a pretty standard backlash ensues. It happened with The Blair Witch Project, and it's happening again now with Paranormal Activity. And it's dumb and pointless.

Yes, Paranormal Activity is another ultra-low-budget, shot-on-home-video film with semi-professional actors, just like Blair Witch, with a tiny scope and scares built up more out of suggestion and mood than anything else. And like Blair Witch, it works. Director Oren Peli slowly and carefully crafts a mood of discomfort in what is supposed to be the most comfortable place of all - the modern middle-class suburban home - and proceeds to demolish any sense of safety through prudent use of sound effects and a smart use of visual space. On its face, a movie like this seems simplistic, but when you look at some of the failures in the genre over the last ten years - Blair Witch 2, Quarantine and, worst of all, Cloverfield (I still haven't seen Rec) - you realize that crafting a mood through camerawork and sound design isn't quite so easy after all. And mood is where a movie like Paranormal Activity lives and dies. And in this case, to this particular movie-goer, it was a success.

Granted, it's a small-scale movie with characters who aren't fully-inhabited literary characters, a la the characters in, say, The Innocents or The Haunting. Nor, however, do they need to be. But they are unique individuals, brought to life by solid (if unspectacular) performances, and rounded out by a dash of subtextual conflict - this is as much a movie about dealing with a douchebag boyfriend as it is about a vengeful demon, and the conflict between the characters is just as important as the conflict with their invisible tormentor (and in some ways, it's the same conflict).

One last note: the ending, which was apparently added well after the movie screened at festivals in 2007 and 2008, is a little dopey. It's appropriately big and climactic, yes, but it's also kind of a lame Hollywood wink at the audience. But I guess it's hard to argue with Steven Spielberg when he's giving notes.


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