This thing really is a phenomenon.
I figured, “I’ll show up to the theater an hour early, to beat the rush and ensure a prime seat, no front-row BS.” But then I turned the corner of West 41st and 8th Street, en route to the AMC Empire venue in Times Square, and I noticed that there was a line of folks stretched around the corner of 42nd and 8th; easily 300 people. Like me, they were all under the impression that showing up an hour or so beforehand for the midnight screening of Paranormal Activity would be a slick way to avoid any low-grade seating. I could almost feel the “Sucker” sticker pinned to my forehead.
What none of us realized, though, was just how increasingly Paranormal Activity is turning into a cinematic event. The marketing campaign for the little $15,000 film (shot in only a week’s time) by rookie writer/director Oren Peli has been brilliant at the least, from the exclusivity of midnight-or-later showtimes to the “Demand It!” technique that allows people to log on to the film’s website and demand that it makes its way to their local theater if their hood isn’t one of the select cities lucky enough so far. If the buzz continues to spread, and midnight showing receive the same extending-beyond-sight lines as the one I attended last night, Paranormal Activity could cement itself as a modern-day The Blair Witch Project.
Shot in the same handheld camera style as Blair Witch, Peli’s film is as straightforward as cinema comes: it’s late September 2006, and a twentysomething couple (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, using their real first names here) living in San Diego is haunted by a demon in their home, and the ways that this demon harasses them become more and more intense, leading up to a a payoff that blows that of Blair Witch out of the woods. Blair Witch showed absolutely nothing, to positive effect the first time you see it but repeat viewings minimalize the resolution’s effect; the final few minutes of Paranormal Activity, I’m willing to bet, will still literally ‘send chills down my spine’ each time I watch in the future. And, I hate to use a cliche such as “chills down my spine,” but, frankly, that’s what happened. Even more impressive was that I pretty much knew how the film was going to play out; yet, the ending still got me. [Continued after the jump, including my main reason why the scares of Paranormal Activity work so damn well]
All night and morning, I was debating over whether I should piece together a formal review for this one or not. The plus to ignoring the reaction-writing urge is that the whole midnight-movie-experience will remain pure; I was a fan, plain and simple. That’s the way a film like Paranormal Activity needs to be seen. The temptations for writing a review are there, though; in all, the film is, expectedly, not “one of the scariest movie ever made,” as some horror websites are pinning it, so it wouldn’t hurt to explain why not.
But there’s so much to love about the film that nitpicking feels juvenile. Unnecessary. Time-wasting. Paranormal Activity deserves as large an audience as possible, because it’s the ultimate crowd-pleaser. The collective I saw it with last night gobbled every second of the film up, applauding numerous times and jumping/screaming at the film’s biggest ‘gotcha’ moments. Scanning the premises before the opening previews began, I was skeptical; the crowd appeared to be full of natural-born haters and obnoxious wannabe thugs who were talking loudly and acting all kinds of fool. About ten minutes into Paranormal Activity, however, everybody shut the fuck up and allowed Peli’s film to do its thing. And it was awesome.
Lights turning on an off inexplicably. Ouija boards being set ablaze without any candles or lighters. Invisible-foot-steps. Demonic possession. Paranormal Activity brings the goods while hardly showing anything physically “there.”
While exiting the theater, my friend and I tried to pinpoint what exactly made the film work so well. She’s just as big a film head as I am, so it was an interesting chat. We both agreed on the obvious, that the film’s peanuts budget played a huge part, with how Peli was able to deliver undeniable tenseness and believable pacing atop clever camera tricks and only one minor bit of special effects, which comes during the finale. The guy took a shoestring amount of finances in stride and made one of the more successfully-jolting horror films of the last few years; applaud him. A star has a great chance at being born.
I’ve been mulling over Paranormal Activity all morning now, and I’ve settled on what the film’s most crucial plot-point is—–[Possibly minor Spoiler alert] the demon is only after Katie. This isn’t a haunted house movie; rather, it’s an obsessed demon’s tale. Through a conversation with a paranormal-minded doctor, we learn that Katie has been plagued by this phenomena since she was an 8-year-old, and that her evil stalker has made its presence felt periodically throughout the interim between then and now. This clever lining of the film’s script eventually pushes the film into its fierce final act; after a particularly-creepy late night cameo, the demon leaves a charred up photo of an 8-year-old Katie in the attic, directly above the couple’s bed. The reason why Katie is terrified by the snapshot: when she was eight, her house mysteriously burnt down, and nothing—-not even pictures—-was salvaged.
If Peli had made the film’s demon your basic “stuck within the walls of the house” entity, Paranormal Activity would lose all of its force. Look at The Amityville Horror; once the family flees from the house at the end of the film, they’re safe. The threat is confined, begging the question: why the hell didn’t the family just kick rocks five minutes into the film? Same goes for Poltergiest, or any other haunted house fare. Paranormal Activity, on the other hand, totally subverts this common plot hindrance. Katie has been followed by this demon over the years no matter what house she was living in, so we know that her leaving the house she shares with Micah wouldn’t change a thing. She’s royally fucked, in leyman’s terms. You can sympathize with her all you’d like, or even root for her and deem her a generally nice person (which she is, as played with a cutesy sweetness by Featherston), but that doesn’t alter the fact that her supernatural suitor has zero intentions of chucking her a deuce.
Peli’s great ideas and how he brings them to fruition are fantastic. Paranormal Activity isn’t the “scariest movie ever” as promised by some critics, but that’s fine. A more pessimistic filmgoer may use that against the film, and they’d be missing the point. Paranormal Activity should be taken as nothing more than a showcase of style over finance. Proof that subtle scares go much further than overdone gore.
Peli showed and proved. Again, applaud him.
Really good LA Times story on the film’s rags-to-riches background (including how Steven Spielberg himself nearly shit himself while watching): “The haunted history of Paranormal Activity”