Cheap Creeps

It’s possible that my recent dissection of Paranormal Activity came across as a tad harsh. Although I tempered the review with praise, the general impression was probably negative. I didn’t mean to imply that Paranormal Activity is a bad movie, because it isn’t. But even a brief inspection of proceedings reveals the forced plot mechanics cranking away underneath. As a consequence, Oren Peli’s debut doesn’t feel genuine. It’s a work of palpable fiction, slave to the same story conventions as a more traditional narrative. Unless you’re making anti-cinema that only people seeking refuge from the rain will see, that’s the tried and true way to do it.

But despite the touch of artificiality that all fake documentaries possess, Paranormal Activity is still creepy as hell. Though not the best new movie I saw this year, it was certainly the eeriest. Peli makes effective use of simple elements like a door, a light switch and a billowing blanket. (More “cinematic” ingredients, like the demonic footprints and Ouija board, aren’t quite as effective.) Additionally, the mundane setting heightens the tension. Many people, after viewing the film, go home to houses that look not unlike the one in the movie (Peli’s own). In the dead of night, do they wake up for no apparent reason, dreading the innocuous click of a light switch?

Peli is currently at work on an Area 51 movie, once again comprised of “found” footage but this time with a bigger budget ($5 million). I can picture it now—lab technicians ensconced in dark laboratories, panicked soldiers, shadowy hallways and a sinister, barely-glimpsed alien or two. Or perhaps something completely different. At any rate, on the basis of his debut, I’m looking forward to Peli’s next project. I just hope he doesn’t shake the camera too much, as that gives me motion sickness. Fat chance, right?

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An Open Door is an Invitation

There are with every man at least two evil spirits.

– “Grean Tea” (1869) by Sheridan Le Fanu

Sometimes, however, one evil spirit is more than enough! But if you know that it likes to hang around in the hallway just outside your bedroom, why would you sleep with the door open at night? Oh yeah, because it looks nicer on the movie screen …

Close the door, I feel a (first) draft.

I finally saw Paranormal Activity a few days ago, and I can sort of understand what all the fuss is about. For one thing, it’s roughly a gazillion times better than The Blair Witch Project. The concept is creepier—not just closer to home but actually in the home. The acting is good, if a bit repetitious. The sound mix is less obtrusive. And there aren’t any close-ups of snotty nostrils, which is always a big plus. But Oren Peli’s $15,000 breakout hit is not above sabotaging itself, and we’ll get to all that in a mo. First, some good points.

Sensibly, Paranormal Activity begins after the supernatural disturbance has already been established in the suburban home of Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat). There isn’t a lengthy buildup where the characters wonder what’s going on. They don’t try to rationalize the strange events that have already taken place. As Micah explains immediately, there’s a ghost in the house, and he has bought a camera to document the supernatural shenanigans. Sadly for the young couple, his inability to leave well enough alone will eventually lead to some serious unpleasantness.

Micah and Katie knew how to appreciate a good bedroom ceiling.

The first half of the movie is better than the second by a wide margin. By inserting important information in subtle ways, Peli establishes an early foundation from which to take proceedings into darker territory. I especially liked the visit from a levelheaded medium, played with calm sincerity by Mark Fredrichs. In this scene, Katie explains that a strange presence has followed her all through life, creating an occasional sense of unease but little else. At this point, Fredrichs drops a bombshell. He explains that the presence isn’t a ghost at all, but a demon, and since demonology isn’t his field, he doesn’t want to get involved. But he gives them the name of an expert, as well as a strict warning not to communicate with the presence. So far so good, both for viewer and characters. But the young couple never get a hold of the expert, and that creates a distracting expectation vacuum that’s never filled.

The presence of the camera is in itself a sort of invitation for the demon to become more active. Matters aren’t helped much by Micah’s propensity to shout out defiant challenges to their invisible lodger, along the lines of “Show yourself!” and “Is that all you got?” If Paranormal Activity has one chief liability, it’s Micah. He is a moron, and morons are commonplace in real life, but he’s just so conveniently moronic. In more ways than one, he’s a tool. At one point, when the disturbances are still fairly benign, he tells Katie about an anomaly that he’s recorded. Fair enough, only it’s about 1:30 in the morning, they’re in bed, and Katie is clearly nervous. Would someone, even a jerk like Micah, pick such a tense moment to announce that things might be getting worse? This is the exact point where the movie is hijacked by contrivance. Soon enough, narrative momentum is lost and never really regained.

She had a point ...

Some would probably argue that “narrative momentum” isn’t necessary in a “found” movie. As viewers, we pretend that these are actual events, compiled by the participants before things went horribly bad. Micah isn’t concerned with constructing a narrative, he just wants to capture some juicy footage. And he gets it. But a story must be shaped, because story creates emotional involvement, and that just doesn’t happen in Paranormal Activity. The events escalate, which is a kind of progression, but they escalate thanks to the writer/director’s labored methods. For instance, Micah’s commitment to his camcorder becomes hard to swallow. His dedication to documenting everything is at odds with his casual air. It’s just never established that he cares enough about the disturbance to merit such involvement. Even when a night’s recording yields some evidence of ghostly activity, he doesn’t seem particularly excited. (Sorry to be grumbling about him again, but Micah and the strained storytelling are two sides of the same coin.) His childish defense when Katie berates him for getting a spirit board, as well as the ridiculously comprehensive website he just happens to stumble upon, also stretch credibility beyond breaking point. So, is he a poorly conceived character, or is his inertia a deliberate ruse? I’m feeling diplomatic, so let’s say it’s a little of both.

I do like the reshot ending, which just so happens to be the brainchild of one Steven Spielberg. The very final image, however, is too Hollywood-y. It breaks with the general feel of what we’ve already seen. I’ve read descriptions of two alternate endings, and they both strike me as more true to the spirit of the movie. But in due course, I’m sure we’ll get a chance to see them on shiny disc. Perhaps the newest conclusion is the better one after all.

An alternate ending can be glimpsed in the trailer.

Sorry about the lengthy post, but I haven’t “OP-dEaDed” the blog in a week, so I thought I’d provide more bang for your buck. I’ll just wrap things up by saying that in its efforts to appear authentic, Paranormal Activity ironically becomes just as forced as the competition. Believability suffers for the sake of handy solutions. But I’d still recommend it to horror fans, as there are memorable moments and nice, disturbing ideas to enjoy. I did get motion sickness from the shaky camerawork, but that’s something that doesn’t seem to bother most people.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s Friday night and I want to watch a movie!

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