Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
ALERT! SPOILERS AHEAD!
There's not an original idea to be found in the surprisingly spry new horror flick Paranormal Activity, and that's OK.
Paranormal Activity combines familiar elements from some of our greatest recent scare movies, including Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, The Exorcist and of course The Blair Witch Project, which provides the movie's central conceit – that once again, we're watching found footage of a paranormal event.
Looking back at the legacy of Blair Witch kind of makes my stomach turn, I have to admit, and not because the movie provided the inspiration for nausea-inducing handheld movies like Cloverfield and District 9. Nope, I find Blair Witch to be revolting because when we look back at the movie's original viral campaign, we discover that we were pretty much being sold a snuff movie.
Yes, yes, yes – I know. It was just an ad campaign, and you’d have to be a fool to fall for a movie that claimed to have actual footage of ghosts.
That said, back in the early days of online promotions, Blair Witch did an impressive job of disseminating that message, which accomplished two things: First, it added the aforementioned aura of snuff to the proceedings, and second, it drew our attention away from three weak performances at movie's center.
But despite Blair Witch's morally dubious meta-marketing, the central idea was sound: Shoot a genre movie like a documentary. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, by dint of its grungy, no-budget production values, has always felt like a documentary to me, and I enjoyed both Cloverfield (a documentary about Gozdilla attacking New York) and District 9 (a documentary about an unstable alien settlement in South Africa).
Paranormal Activity joins the fray as a documentary about suburban supernatural horror – a stomping ground already explored in Poltergsist, Amityville and to some extent The Exorcist, though Paranormal draws more on Exorcist's demonic and occult trappings than its setting, which is far more urban and upscale. Like Poltergeist and Amityville, Paranormal eschews the notion that only old houses can be haunted and instead places the horror in the most anonymous cookie-cutter tract house possible. Paranormal also draws on Cloverfield heavily with its young cast of unknowns (both stars of Paranormal are brand-new faces on the Hollywood scene), but unlike Cloverfield (which was partially scripted), Paranormal was entirely improvised. The movie's stars, newcomers Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston, both deliver relaxed and realistic performances that not only help sell the movie's goofy concept, but also add an unexpected layer. More on that later. For now, let's talk about the barf-inducing cinematography of movies that rely on handheld cameras.
I almost had to walk out of Cloverfield and District 9 because the handheld camerawork gave me motion sickness. Only by gritting my teeth and moving back a few rows was I able to stick it out. I question the wisdom of so much shaky handheld work, but in both movies, it helped the filmmakers conceal the seams in their special-effects work, and in Cloverfield's specific case, it added a strangely terrifying level of realism to the proceedings.
By contrast, all of Paranormal most effective scenes happen when the camera is perfectly still. Director Oren Peli occasionally falls into the trap of asking his characters to pick up the camera at times when it strains believability, but for the most part, the movie's most memorable horrors happen in the same static shot of a bedroom. Moreover, the characters very often run offscreen to contend with the house's resident demon, which wisely leaves our imaginations with nothing but the movie's excellent sound design to work with.
Much hoopla has been made of this movie's guerilla marketing campaign, which started with a few successful screenings and culminated with Steven Spielberg going to bat for the original movie (Paramount originally wanted to remake the movie with stars).
I'm glad they didn't. I love seeing a small filmmaker (and two talented unknown actors) hit the jackpot, and in addition, I'm happy to see such a disciplined execution of what is, on its face, a mish-mash of tired ideas. Off the top of my head, here are some of the corny clichés found in Paranormal:
• Creaking floors.
• Ouija boards.
• Stuff catching on fire.
• Demonic footprints.
• A mysterious photograph.
• Banging against the walls.
• A central conflict in which one character wants to get out, while the other wants to stay.
It's that last cliché I want to focus on. Seriously – how many horror movies have we seen where the dialogue goes like this:
CHARACTER 1: "Let's get the [expletive] outta here."
CHARACTER 2: "Nah! Nah! It's just the wind. Let's take this rickety staircase up to the attic!"
The same dynamic drives Paranormal, but here's the twist: Because of the strong performances at movie's center, it didn't feel clichéd. Instead, I felt like I was watching a compelling portrayal of a dysfunctional relationship.
Let me explain: The boyfriend of the couple doesn't listen to his girlfriend, and his failure to listen makes for the movie's most truly disturbing moments. Case in point: Midway through the action, something really terrifying happens, the girlfriend begs to leave the house. Her face fills the screen, blown out by the camera's light, and she squeaks, "Please, please, please, please let's go," and the boyfriend ignores her.
Make no mistake: All of the movie's supernatural scares made my jump in my seat, but the dysfunctional relationship was what lingered with me as I left the theater.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.