Sunday, October 25, 2009

Movie Review: Paranormal Activity
Directed by Oren Peli
Starring Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat

Its been several years since The Blair Witch Project ambushed theaters - long enough to have exploded, lampooned and been canonized in the horror film genre, as well as a mile marker for the way films are made.
But most of the teenagers who shelled out their burger-flipping dollars to see Blair Witch have put college in their rear view mirror by now, which means a whole new generation of kids are ready to pay money to have themselves scared senseless by a scary movie.

So the fruit was ripe for a film like Paranormal Activity to come along. This film tells the story of a soon-to-be married couple in San Diego, living a seemingly innocuous existence who have just purchased a video camera to hopefully catch the things that have been going bump in the night on film. The recipe uses the same Blair Witch and Cloverfield M.O. in telling the story using "real" footage taken from the home tapes of Katie and Micah.
The story unfolds gradually, with the nighttime activity becoming more and more intense as Katie and Micah try and unravel the mystery behind their late-night visitor.

This film has been carried on a recent tidal wave of energy led by the film's website, asking fans of the film to "demand" the film be shown in their city. This has led from the film (which was filmed in 2007, but is only now receiving wide release) showing in very limited release to it claiming the no. 1 box office spot for the weekend of Oct. 25, 2009. Its marketing campaign is slick and viral, claiming to be the scariest movie you've never heard of, crawling its way up from the very bottom because of its virtues as a truly scary film. The people themselves (we are told) are the ones who have made this film the success that it is.

Let's be sure to give credit where credit is due; what Paranormal has been able to accomplish on a $25,000 budget and no big studio distribution is nothing short of miraculous, a feat which would be impossible in a pre-facebook buzz-building world. A good scary movie is just that: a good scary movie. Some of cinema's greatest works have involved some of literature's most horrifying creations, or birthed some of our most memorable monsters, created for the films themselves.

All of the films' promotion aside, the film suffers from some fatal flaws, not the least of which is its hardly the scariest film I've ever seen.
Paranormal tries to blend the Poltergeist with the Exorcist iin timbre, but while those films achieved a genuine human response of revulsion and horror, Paranormal takes entirely too long to taxi out onto the runway, open the throttle and get airborne. It's the little things that are supposed to thrill us, according to the director Oren Peli. A door swinging back and forth, keys being tossed onto the floor and lights being switched on and off are our crescendo to the main act, but frustratingly, between every ghoulish encounter are lengthy stretches of exposition the following day as our hapless denisons try and deconstruct the noises that are preventing their good night's rest.
The rhythm almost becomes comical, with each domestic argument during the day fading into another bedroom scene where, predictably, another strange series of sounds occur which send Katie and Micah tumbling out of bed in confusion, pointing the camera lens shakily down the hallway hoping to catch sight of the intruder.
Director Peli tries to create all of the drama through his actors' very capable, believable performances as two sane, ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances, but the level of tension that he is able to conjure up doesn't come close to breaking the meter in the way that it ought to.

The film tries to explore every avenue of explanation it can think of to offer the audience a reason for the madness, but it (again) frustratingly never follows through with exploring any of these reasons, instead distracting the audience with another bump in the night.

By the time the first hour of the film laboriously closes you begin to realize that the pay-off may not be worth the wait. By the end of the film you know you were correct.
The only really truly freakish scene of the film is the closing climax which results in such confusion and frantic activity that you are truly disoriented, grasping for understanding as the camera tumbles to the floor. If only the whole film could've been treated with this level of visceral thrill it would've been fun to watch. As it was, it just became a labor of annoyance.

Movie Grade: C+

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