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Paranormal Activity (2007)

by on 2010/10/29

I feel the need to restate a variant of my musical disclaimer:  I don’t find the notion of a piece “based on true events” or made with “found footage” to be particularly compelling in and of itself.  If anything it shifts my inner nitpicker into overdrive, and the suspension of disbelief becomes an issue.  The action on-camera feels staged … narratively necessary but patently unreal.  That said, Paranormal Activity remains a reasonable effort, despite exhibiting most of its sub-genre’s inherent problems.

The premise here is that uptight airhead Katie (Katie Featherston) is haunted by a clearly-slumming poltergeist.  Her boyfriend, swaggering smart alec Micah (Micah Sloat), buys a “giant ass” (their words, not mine) recording rig to capture some evidence of it.  Frankly it’s difficult to feel too concerned for this couple, so strongly do they evoke Pam and Jim of The Office.  The American Office that is, minus the charm.  They’re spoiled, living in luxury, and irritating with their alternating baby talk and bickering.

Nonetheless the horror cliches pile up alarmingly:  unusual sights and sounds, rebellious physics, and so on.  They consult a psychic (Mark Fredrichs) who believes a demon is fixated on Katie, and refers them to a specialist.  Micah dismisses this suggestion, intent on resolving the situation himself, bringing to bear all the power of the Giant Ass Camera.  (Stick your own colorectal joke in here.)

Now, speaking of the camera, while my eyes are grateful the director used a blue colour timing for the overnight footage, the choice felt counterproductively soothing and less authentic than the more common blown-out high-gain green effect.  Similar self-sabotage happens in other ways too.  For example, characters sometimes act in ways that don’t make sense until later, not because they want to but because the script requires it; the sacrifice of character to plot becomes painfully clear in these instances.

However, prescient actions are not the only foreshadowings.  Pivotal moments are telegraphed too awkwardly to achieve real scares.  A low frequency tone and visible time counter appear only when important events are imminent.  If they appeared with the rest of the footage — ostensibly captured with the same gear — the “surprises” might actually surprise us.

To the movie’s credit, it works more often than not, even when the artifice is apparent.  Why don’t the couple close their bedroom door at night?  Not “because a locked door wouldn’t keep a demon out” but “because a closed door is less scary than a long murky hallway”.  This production is practically a killer app for widescreen adoption.  Its most effective moments are those in which your eyes jump back and forth, left and right, from yawning doorway to sleeping victims, occupying opposite sides of a dimly-lit frame.

As much as balance, the director seems to value distance, space, and emptiness, commodities all too rarely understood or employed.  As scary as a monstrous howling may be, silence can seem far worse.  Fortunately the visuals are treated with the same circumspection as the audio, and the story achieves its dread without any significant on-screen violence.

It even manages to transcend the aforementioned sub-genre problems, if not as often as I’d hope.  In one instance Micah, concerned for Katie, drops the camera to attend to her, and we see events unfold through the canted angle of the abandoned device.  This scene alone feels more convincingly “real” than most of the rest of the movie, which isn’t bad considering the remainder is hardly a failure.

If asked to sum up Paranormal Activity, I would suggest it’s fifty percent Blair Witch Project, one quarter Poltergeist, and another quarter Exorcist.  So it’s hardly original, and by no means perfect, but it is effective.  As I felt with Open Water, it works well enough as a well-paced compulsion, though I wouldn’t call it entertainment.

* * *

Rated 14A/R for frightening scenes, language

86 minutes

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