Thursday, October 22, 2009

Film Review: Paranormal Activity

"Paranormal Activity" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Paranormal Activity" (2009) is one of those big audience pictures. It is a movie which requires you to be in a room filled with people screaming. Their screaming will become infectious and start to make you scream. You can watch the movie by yourself, which might be just as scary, but, I'd recommend seeing the film with a large audience in theatres.

"Paranormal Activity" comes out around the time when I said most of today's horror films are really screen blood baths. A majority of them are slasher films which want to disgust us. They don't play on our imagination. They have no artist aesthetic. "Paranormal Activity" refutes some of my ideas and confirms some.

Apparently the movie was made in 2007 (I hope that is not a "spoiler" to call it a movie), at least according to The film, as I understand it, appeared at some horror film festivals, received positive audience reaction, and managed to find distribution, it was even screened during the Chicago International Film Festival (which is not how I saw it).

A lot of hype and confusing information have surfaced regarding the film (some of that is intentional). A lot of people are proclaiming this is the scariest movie ever. Generally I like to avoid sensational statements like that. Confusion has arisen thanks to a pretty good marketing campaign which has tried to pull a "Blair Witch" on us, making us believed what we are watching is a true story. What we see on the screen is "found footage". Writer/director Oren Peli goes to such extremes to hit this point home that the film has no opening or closing credits. No one's hard work on the film is credited (including Peli). The film opens with a credit reading Paramount Pictures would like to thank the family of one of the characters in the film and the police. The idea is the film we are watching is what the police found in the home.

The film deals with two characters; Katie (Katie Featherston) and her boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat). She is a college student studying English, he is a day trader. They have been together for three years and have recently moved into a house together.

It seems ever since Katie was 8 years old she has been the target of ghosts or spirits. Since living with Micah the events have become more frequent. This leads Micah to buy a video camera so he can tape what happens during their sleep. Of course he doesn't limit the filming to their sleep time. He is constantly filming everything, even their mundane daily activities like brushing their teeth.

Unable to deal with the situation any longer Katie calls a psychic (Mark Fredrichs) who informs them they are not dealing with a ghost. A ghost he tells them is a human spirit. He can sense a presence in their house and says it is not coming from a ghost. What they have is a demon. He cannot help them and suggest they call a friend of his who deals with this field.

The majority of the film takes place at night when they are sleeping and we hear loud noises. It sounds like footsteps. We hear grunting, loud bangs and once we see a shadow. These scenes cleverly divide the screen in half. The camera, which is now on a tripod, is positioned in the middle of the room. On one half of the frame we see Katie and Micah's bed. The other half of the frame shows us the hallway leading to the bedroom, with the door open. It is very dark since the lights are all shut off. This is clever because by breaking the frame in half we never quite know where to look. This heightens our senses. And since one half of the frame is in the dark we keep expecting something to appear from the darkness. If something does I won't reveal it here.

I honestly didn't find "Paranormal Activity" to be a scary film. It feels like more of a suspense film. The film reminds me of an episode of "Ghost Hunters", a "reality" TV show were are group of amateur ghost hunters investigate paranormal activity. The show, much like the film, consist of the characters saying things like, "did you hear that" or "I feel funny standing here", "I feel like something is here". Of course you really can't film someone's weird inner feelings or strange thoughts they have. You can only show us the person saying it. I don't find that very effective. Still, the film does have moments where is it suspenseful.

I usually damn movies where you have actors pretending not to be actors trying to act normal, like there is no camera on them. It usually smells phony. It is hard to realistically perform in a naturalistic style. Watch Henry Jaglom's films as an example. Rarely am I impressed with the performances but here Katie Featherston comes out looking the best. Sure, there are moments, when for the convenience of the plot, she "acts" it up. But, on the whole it is an effective performance which seems as real as you can get. Micah Sloat, has some of these moments too, but, I felt wasn't as successful as Katie. Mark Fredrichs as the psychic fares the worst. It is a total performance. His interview with them was a plot device used to establish who these characters are and the viewer can see right through it.

Still I'd suggest watching "Paranormal Activity". It is better than "The Blair Witch Project" (1999) but not quite as good as "Cloverfield" (2008). And since 2009 has been such a bad year for movies it is one of the better films of the year.