Wednesday, October 7, 2009

While you were sleeping...

Film Review - PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007)

Screenplay by Oren Peli
Directed by Oren Peli

Filmmaker Oren Peli has done it; he's cracked the Horror Code and broken it open. He's that once-in-a-generation creator who has managed to place his finger on a heretofore unexplored primal fear, using it for a movie that sets pulses racing and gives birth to many a sleepless night. It's why Paranormal Activity is packing in audiences, transfixing them in an ever-escalating grip of tension and dread, and depositing them at the end, shaken and stirred. And while he makes it all look so simple, it is anything but.

For a cost of between eleven and fifteen thousand dollars - reports vary - and utilizing his own home as a setting, he delves into this niggling anxiety: What goes on inside my house while I'm asleep? As someone who lives alone, and is used to abject silence after nightfall, I can tell you it doesn't take a ringing phone or a thump on the roof to get my attention. It's that quiet rustling in the kitchen that makes you question whether tonight was a night you forgot to lock the front door.

Sharing that aloneness together are couple are Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston & Micah Sloat), their three-year relationship strained by a series of nocturnal occurrences that progress from barely perceptible and annoying to disturbing and malevolent. For dramatic purposes, they are wisely childless; parents are far more accustomed to being roused in the night.

Being the self-motivated 21st Century Man that he is, Micah invests in an expensive video camera to monitor and record any supernatural activity, and maybe to make a buck from the endeavor. (He's a daytrader, and while we never see him at work, this detail just feels right.) Is their suburban home haunted? Let's go to the tape.

We soon learn that, no, the house is not haunted - Katie is. She's been experiencing these dark visitations since the age of eight, and believes they resulted in the burning of her house as a child. She is a woman with baggage, the kind that stands at the foot of your bed and pins you with a baleful gaze. Featherston does a incisive job of playing her as though coping with the cloud of grief, yet never overlooking an opportunity to find joy in her life and relationship.

The spine of the movie is a series of evening night-vision sequences of their bedroom, each scene taking us from lights out to morning alarm. It is in these scenes that we as audience literally become conditioned, staring intently at the screen as our eyes flicker from hall to bed to lower-right timecode and back to hall again, looking for any sign of something that just shouldn't be there. It is both wearying and exhilarating; when something does happen - and it most certainly is subtle at first - we lean in a little further...and further...and further...

And then Hell breaks loose. At least that's what it feels like once we've been coaxed so intimately into the action. It's like being mere inches away from the IED when it detonates. By the halfway mark, the movie has us entirely under its spell. And it just gets worse. I was reminded of The Exorcist in the fact that, eventually, I did not want to have to go back into that bedroom again and again.

As I said, it seems simple, and the direction is about at the level of what you would expect from a 30-year-old daytrader. (These DIY videoed movies are all saddled with the same problem of motivation; why does the camera keep filming? This is solved by having Micah be a lovable jerk with a new toy who thinks nothing of filming what he probably shouldn't, including an attempt at recording some bedroom activity of the more natural variety.) It's the complexity of the characters that also keeps us riveted, as they are far from predictable and thus far more human. Micah is shagged off of his dubious notion to bring in a Ouija board, and just when we're convinced he's taken the warning to heart, guess what he shows up with? And with the biggest grin, proud of his brilliant idea? This prompted one woman seated next to me to mutter, "Typical male." Perhaps one man's "unpredictable" is another woman's "standard issue."

The other element adding to the movie's success is the audience's awareness of itself, the recognition that we were all thinking and feeling the same thing in this communal experience. That timecode at the lower right during the night scenes eventually becomes an object of fixation. When it suddenly popped up during a daytime sequence, the crowd inhaled as one, then nervously laughed at our shared case of the jitters.

When the movie climaxes (provoking tears in some members), it ends with an abruptness that is necessarily cruel. Rightfully absent of closing credits, we are denied that time to transition back to reality. The houselights come up, and we're shell shocked, and somewhat stupefied that we've been put through the wringer by a little movie that cost about what any other Hollywood feature would spend on one day's catering tab.

To be fair, they were a number of those in attendance who were immediately dismissive of the film at its conclusion, most of them wearing their baseball caps backwards. No, this is not a film that is going to entice anyone who has circled October 23rd in red on their calendar because it's the release date of Saw IV; in fact, there is a noticeable onscreen absence of the color red altogether. Industrial Light & Magic never came anywhere near this film's zip code. The performers play characters who share their first names, and they wore their own clothes to the filming. But Paranormal Activity has what no bloated production budget can buy - a palpable sense of menace and fear, a sense that is transmitted directly into the audience, a sense that lingers long after the house lights have come up. Don't make the error of not seeing this in a theater with a crowd. It is that rare unforgettable movie-going experience that horror fans have been long awaiting, and has been so long in coming.

I want to mention one more detail, something that Film Comment magazine has referred to as an example of a "Moment in Time," a grace note that lingers in the memory after the film has unspooled. There is a scream that is heard near the film's conclusion - mercifully off-screen - that is unlike anything I've experienced in my years of film-going; a low, strangled howl that felt like I was hearing a soul leave a body. I was grateful to not witness the person screaming, and in the silence that followed, if someone had placed a hand on my shoulder, I would have surely be-shat myself.

How's that for a recommendation, gentle reader?


Unknown said...

Be-shat?? That's all I need to stay the hell away from that. I'm a bona-fide coward when it comes to movies
like this.

Great blog senski!

Sixty six.

senski said...

Thanks, Jon!

kindertrauma said...

Great, great review! Why didn't this movie work for me? I feel so alone! -Unk

senski said...

But not unloved. :-)

It's the wonderful and frustrating thing about Horror. Along with comedy and eroticism (I love your lapdance analogy!), they're so frustratingly subjective, and no critic or review can talk you into something you don't feel.

Unk, I wager that the longer PA is out there, and the more cities it hits, your view is gonna become prevalent. Call it performance anxiety - it just can't live up to all the hype. And while I don't mention this in my piece, that trailer is really damaging...

kindertrauma said...

I swear I don't wear a backwards baseball cap either!

(I laughed out loud when I read that line in your review)


senski said...

So here's the tough question - dare you make a prediction as to how Aunt John is gonna respond to PA?