Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ticket Stubs: Paranormal Activity

By now you’ve already heard of Paranormal Activity. Typically this is the type of smaller film that I would latch onto, talk about like crazy, and then everyone would continue to ignore it. Yet the fates of cinema worked with me this time. I don’t know how the word of mouth avalanched to the point that this $11,000 film is now available nationwide.

So here’s the big question: Is this Little Engine That Could worth the ride? In short, yes. The longer version, the rest of this review. Paranormal Activity is the story of a twenty something couple who have been experiencing some peculiar things around their house. Micah decides the best idea is to record this activity on an expensive film camera that he buys. That’s where the movie begins. The entire film, much like Cloverfield, is made up of Micah’s footage. Yet unlike Cloverfield, you can actually see where Micah plugs in the battery. Having the camera in the house only angers (or perhaps amuses) the entity that is tormenting the couple.

Now the torment is what everyone is talking about with this movie. At night Micah sets up the camera and points it towards their bed. Then during the early hours, something happens. It has often been observed that with restraint, true creativity reigns. Would certain Hitchcock films be as successful if he didn’t always try to fight against the oppressive Hays’ Code? The filmmakers behind this movie didn’t have a censorship issue, but a budget one. Too many horror films rely on special effects to heighten their scares, but this movie reminds us what is really scary is what we can’t see. Every “scary scene” is a showcase for clever filmmaking tricks. I know roughly how Peter Jackson created Gollum, but I can’t figure out how this film made….sorry, I can’t say. This film is only becoming more popular and I’m sure some of the biggest scares will be spoiled. I don’t want to be that guy.

So why do these scenes work? No one is taking pity on the film by saying that “it is scary for its budget.” It is scary in spite of its budget. The intimacy of this movie is outstanding. Having the camera so close to the action is one thing, but what really makes the film frightening is that they properly set up the environment. This movie has been unfairly compared to The Blair Witch Project. Paranormal Activity succeeds every time Project failed. Blair Witch is boring because you can’t stand being lost in the woods with those numskulls, whereas I enjoyed my time with Micah and Katie. They feel like two very real people. They each have naturalistic flaws and they always properly respond to the madness that they are faced with. I give a lot of that credit to the real Micah and Katie. Working with amateur actors is always a risk, but their performances feel so raw that it’s almost impossible to pinpoint when they are “acting.”

Now this movie is far from perfect. The exposition is handled rather poorly, too many of the sequences during the day aren’t needed, and there is a bit of a pacing problem throughout the film. None of these put a real damper on the film because what shines through is its clever approach on a genre that is at its best when there is fresh talent like these guys.

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