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Non-Review Review: Paranormal Activity

I’m sucker for things that go bump in the night. It’s a personal thing. Some people are inherently weirded out by the very idea of zombies or insects or serial killers, but it’s ghosts (or demons or “spiritual presences” or whatever euphemism you wish to use) in their purest forms which terrify me. It’s a matter of personal horror preference – I can (admittedly reluctantly) take copious amounts of gore and graphic violence and, while I may flinch, I’ll shrug it off. It may get me while I’m watching it and I may even look away like a big baby, but it doesn’t really bother me. Give me something just a bit more abstract and I’ll spend the night shivering. So Paranormal Activity was right up my street, then?

A new house can be hell on a relationship...

Yes and no. A movie like this inevitably sufferers from overhyping. Not least of which from my own brother (“it may be the freakiest thing I’ve ever seen”) or co-workers or fellow internet nerds. It’s inevitable that a film so hugely successful and universal embraced should seem just a little bit underwhelming. That isn’t to say it was a hugely effective and more-than-mildly disturbing little film, just that it isn’t exactly a flawless masterpiece. It didn’t give me nightmares or trouble sleeping or anything as melodramatic, but it did consciously force me to think about other things as I dozed off.

The movie is a delightfully high concept little horror. Think of it as The Exorcist meets Cloverfield. It’s a handheld account by two suburbanites to capture the strange goings on in their home on video camera – complete with nightvision for extra bone-chilling effect. Of course, as with all these handheld camera movies (it’s a bit of a fad lately), we do have to spend a good chunk at the start of the movie being introduced to the characters. It isn’t quite as painful as the start of Cloverfield (somewhat meanly – but not unfairly – described as “twenty minutes with jerks”), but it seems oddly formulaic for a movie so widely praised as original and innovative. But I suppose we have to be introduced to these characters in someway, and it isn’t particularly irritating.

You’d be forgiven for assuming (from the title and the plot and everything that happens over the course of movie) that this is a film about ghosts and demons and hauntings and such. And it is, to a huge extent. But it’s also the story of a disintegrating relationship between two people. Micah and Katie are your regular suburban couple until things start going bump in the night. The movie makes a point of stressing to us how their relationship is gradually fading. The beast, we’re warned by the world’s most ineffective (and, actually surprisingly indifferent) paranormal expert, feeds on “negative energy” and will find its way in based on that. So things only get worse as the two stop engaging with each other.

It starts with secrets kept (apparently “I’m being stalked by a demon” never came up while they were courting – I think we’ve all been there), and spreads through to willful communication difficulties (Micah has his own ideas about how to deal with the troublesome spirit), with the couple gradually reverting into defensive gender roles. Micah, being a guy, is more in love with his now night vision camera than his girlfriend’s satanic stalker (though he’s keen to measure up to that particular presence from Katie’s past, in what seems like a crude battle of wills between the two – “I’m in control,” Micah assures Katie at about the point where it seems that inviting an evil entity to play games with you stops being a good idea) and Katie, being a girl, is less about direct confrontation and more about compromise.

Okay, so it isn’t “the great domestic drama” of our time, but it’s a nice insight into a breakdown between two people, with some ghost stuff thrown in as well. The performances aren’t the stuff of Hollywood legend, but it all feels roganic and above-board enough for us to buy into it. There’s no hint of practiced charm or rehearsed lines rendered for effect – the movie was reportedly all ad-libbed and it works the better for it.

There are more than a few moments where the movie falls back of trite cliché. Apparently books on demonology are 100% accurate and Katie isa ble to find the lamest ghost buster ever without any bother (of course – as soon as she gets the name of somebody who’d actually get about the busting, he’s conveniently unreachable). The paranormal expert knows exactly what he’s talking about and the internet has exactly the snippets of information that Katie and Micah need.

Still, all of this is padding. These elements aren’t really important. To be honest, the film probably realises this. The real power of this movie is when the lights go out. When things, without spoiling anything, start happening that shouldn’t happen. They gradually scale up over the course of the film, but even the little stuff which starts us out is unnerving. It’s certainly effective – I was on the edge of my seat while watching.

The slight of hand is incredible. The tension is biting. It’s not even what’s actually happening, it’s – like the couple here – watching in anticipation of what’s going to happen. It’s to the film’s credit that it can live up to these expectations – the effects are impressive, not only in a “how did they do that?” sort of way, but in an “I felt that” sort of way. It’s these sequences which work.

The director shrewdly always fixes the camera at the same point in the room – over the course of three weeks, we always see the exact same angle. We always see the bedroom door open, a shadow over the staircase. We see a long hallway, leading down to two ajar guest room doors. The shadows are static – but we expect them to move. We anticipate a subtle shift in a scene we are allowed to become accustomed to – in a way this shot is familiar and cosy and we, like Micah and Katie, can sense the creepy little disturbances all the easier.

Paranormal Activity isn’t a classic film. I won’t lie and say it stays with you long after the film has finished. It is, however, brilliantly effective at being unsettling. It manages its pace and its scares very well and delivers exactly what it promises. It won’t haunt your dreams or anything so ridiculously over-the-top, but it might just have you on the edge of your seat.

9 Responses

  1. A fun film to watch in a crowded theatre of horror buffs. Made the experience much better.

    • Yep – I watched it at home in the dark with family, so it probably wasn’t nearly the same experience. I kinda regret missing it in cinemas.

  2. Wanted to see this when it was out. Never got round to it. Hope to see it eventually on the small screen. Blair Witch always scared the pants off me so I thought this might too, as it looks like it was done in a similar style.
    Part of what attracted me to it was the clever way it was marketed and the subsequent hype. Hype can be a tricky thing. I usually try not to take too many expectations into a film, less room for disappointment.

    • Yep. I was never a Blair Witch fan, to be honest – which perhaps indicates just how good this film is that it appealed to me. But hype is a strange thing. I think we can only consciously shut out so much – all that we hear has to make an impression, whether we realise it or not.

  3. This movie kept me awake for a month and I couldn’t watch the final scene… we googled the ending in the theater and I had to look away. Not only is it one of the freakiest films I’ve ever seen but they made it for 11 grand… DID YOU HERE ME??? That won’t pay for a T-Shirt on a set for a film like Iron Man. You can’t even shoot on film for 11 grand. This movie kicked ass… I loved it… one of my top 2 films of last year! But what do I know? I still like The Blair Witch!

    • I kinda miss that I didn’t see it in cinemas – apparently the atmosphere was electric. Did you hear that apparently they originally wanted the director to remake the film with bigger stars and include the original as a DVD extra? Crazy!

  4. Yeah, I imagine seeing it in the cinema with people screaming and popcorn flying through the air would make a difference.
    I generally don’t go in for horror movies, mainly because they don’t usually scare me. But I do appreciate a good psychological horror. The only movies that really kept me awake at night were The Shining, The Omen, The Exorcist, The Blair Witch Project and Rosemary’s baby.

    • I’m behind you on most of those (cowering!), but I didn’t find The Exorcist that bad. Perhaps because it was really hyped up for decades (and banned here). It seems fairly tame by today’s standards (so much that pea soup has become a bit of a joke).

  5. I wanted to see the movie in the movie theather. I really hope I dont encounter that same spirit.

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