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Fantastic Fest Review: Paranormal Activity

By  · Published on September 25th, 2009

Paranormal Activity has a complicated and frustrating history. Released in competition at various festivals as early as October 2007 and picked up by a major studio primarily for remake rights so that it could be redone more “polished” with name actors, these plans fell through and now Paranormal Activity is finally getting a commercial release in limited venues this weekend by Paramount Pictures following a hasty, misguided, underwhelming, and gimmicky advertising campaign whose sole selling point seems to be showing night-vision footage of various audiences reacting to the film.

I’m going to set aside my typically meandering sentence structuring for a minute and give the readers of FSR some advice: don’t watch the ads. If you know nothing about this movie, don’t watch any trailers or seek out any of the marketing. Though it’s certainly arguable that any movie can ultimately become a better experience going in without having seen any of the footage or allowing expectations to be molded by advertising, Paramount clearly doesn’t know how to market this film specifically, and some of their ads (like many a spoiling trailer these days) give away a few key moments.

Paranormal Activity is a recent entry in the trend of fake home-video style horror. It’s a trend whose landmark popular inception was The Blair Witch Project, followed several years later with [Rec], Cloverfield, Romero’s Diary of the Dead, [Rec]’s American remake Quarantine, and recently [Rec] 2 (also playing at Fantastic Fest). Although all these films are obvious and legitimate points of comparison, Paranormal Activity reminded me greatly (though only superficially) of the first act of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), whose very effective scary moments relied on home video footage filmed within a couple’s bedroom as they sleep. This is not, however, to assign Paranormal Activity the baggage that a Lynch comparison would often entail. Rather, Paranormal Activity as a whole is as simple, straightforward, and restrained as the now-familiar cinematic conceit used to deliver the thrills.

The film concerns a live-in couple experiencing phantom noises and hints of activity from an apparitional entity occupying their house and bedroom while they sleep. As she explains to a psychic visiting the house trying to solve the problem, college student Katie (Katie Featherston) has experienced such occurrences before, leading the psychic to believe that this particular entity is following her and that such happenings do not occur (unlike they do in most films about hauntings) specific to the house ‐ in other words, it’s inescapable (yikes!). Katie’s boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat) has been recording their sleep and select daily activities with newly acquired video and sound equipment (which, of course, make up the film’s overall structuring approach) to find evidence of the haunting entity. Micah treats this as an exciting venture at first, then as an opportunity to prove alpha dog status both to his girlfriend and against what may or may not exist between the walls of their home. His inability to treat the situation or Katie’s history of being haunted seriously becomes a point of contention for the couple, who fill the shoes of their characters with just enough functional believability. Micah’s arrogance and belligerent insistence that he try to solve the problem itself causes the encounters to become increasingly aggressive, and he continues to attempt making communication with the possible apparition despite Katie’s justified insistence not to do so.

The many limitations of this no-budget horror force writer-director Oren Peli to get creative with his scare tactics, and these limitations and the restraint required therein work as the film’s blessing. Paranormal Activity follows the Hitchcock 101 school of filmmaking like it’s scripture: show as little as possible and let audience imagination fill in the rest. It’s a rule most horror films could implement a bit more, and it works in this film to an astoundingly effective degree. I can’t think of a film in recent memory that has garnered so much terror out of such simple activities, and this is why you’ll be taking the film with you when you go home and try to sleep at night (which is something I predict to have a hard time doing after I finish writing this review). It takes a skilled hand at work to make doors closing, lights turning on, and powder on a hardwood floor this ridiculously scary.

Unlike Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity doesn’t feel DIY amateur where the gimmick is always apparent, and unlike Cloverfield it isn’t the same Hollywood movie you’ve seen time and again except with a gimmick trying to make it seem new. In this film, it isn’t a gimmick. Paranormal Activity understands the strengths and utilities afforded to the mock home-video subgenre, and it uses them to an astoundingly effective degree. The film gives itself many opportunities for a cheap scare, but thankfully chooses lingering creepiness over making the audience jump. Paranormal Activity takes its time to deliberately build up a suspenseful mood and a stress-inducing foreboding atmosphere, as it slowly manages expectations through a structure of repeated happenings over footage of the couple while they sleep, and the wait for the inevitable to happen is often the most terrifying part of all.

That being said, Paranormal Activity in some ways isn’t the fear-inducing shit show some champions of the film promised, but that isn’t necessarily a criticism, for I’d prefer an aura of creepiness getting under my skin rather than an opportunity to see a theater scream in unison (as the poor advertising campaign misleadingly promises). It’s nothing groundbreaking, but is is remarkably effective, especially in a crowded theater. That being said, the ending of the movie (and by ending I mean the very final few seconds) break the films cardinal rule of showing more than alluding, and it feels like something of a cop-out (but not enough to tarnish the integrity of the film as a whole). There were several other endings in screenings of this film at previous festivals, and the descriptions of these endings sound like preferable alternatives to the one attached to the commercial release (I look forward to comparing them when the film is released on DVD). The only way this movie will get an audience is by word of mouth, and I’m fervently on board with endorsing Paranormal Activity as something close enough to the terrifying experience many people say it is.

Go see it. Tell your friends. Good luck sleeping.

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