Wednesday, 25 November 2009
All spoilers have been exorcised from this review
So this week, Paranormal Activity at last opens in UK theatres. Now this film has been knocking about since 2007, doing the festival circuit and generally getting rave reviews from all and sundry. For those of you who don’t know the story behind the release, it goes something like this…
First- time director Oren Peli shot the film in seven days and with a tiny $15,000 budget. It played several festivals and DVDs were sent out the studios. One of which found it’s way into the hands of Steven Spielberg who loved it and soon after a deal with Paramount was struck, initially to remake it with a larger budget. However audience response and positive reviews meant that ultimately the studio decided to ditch the remake scheme as release the original film in theatres albeit in a new tighter edit.
After a successful internet petition promotion, in which people could vote to have the movie shown in their own city, Paramount very quickly widened the original limited run to a full scale national release, just in time for Halloween. By this point a huge buzz was building about the film, and it thrashed Saw VI at the box office and is well under way to becoming the most profitable independent movie ever. But more importantly, Paranormal Activity has been hailed as the scariest film of all time, something the marketing department has made full use of for the promotion.
Now, roughly speaking movie goers who aren’t fans of the horror genre can be divided into two camps. Either they are the type avoid horror films like the plague as they just don’t see the fun or merit in watching a film that may frighten them, or they are on the “I don’t watch them because they aren’t just aren’t scary” side of the fence. Often those in column A seem to find any horror film they happen to see utterly terrifying and I suspect a certain number in column B are of this ilk and are just putting a brave face on the matter.
However, the column B folks are perhaps closer to the truth – in general most horror films just aren’t frightening enough. However it’s important to note that horror isn’t just about the scares; if I had to define the genre, I’d say horror is a journey into the darkness, exploring the stuff of nightmares -monsters, madness, and murder, phantoms and phobias. For me personally, what keeps drawing me back to horror is that the genre is the place where imagination most closely rubs shoulders with reality.
And although fear is an obvious target, a work of horror may also aim for comedy, suspense, thrills, action and even art – basically horror is a set of symbols and themes that may be employed in a variety of ways to tell a whole range of different types of stories.
But that said, there’s nothing more cherished by the genre fan as a work that genuinely delivers the fear. So when I heard jaded horror fanatics claiming that Paranormal Activity had gotten under their skin and actually terrified them, then obviously this was a must see picture. So much so that I discovered that the movie wouldn’t be getting a British release until the end of November and wanting a good frightening movie for Halloween night, I *ahem* “flew to America to see it” as they say on 35mm Heroes…
Yes, yes I know – I’ll be on Santa’s naughty list this year and generally I much prefer to see a film in the theatre or a proper disc rather than some dodgy .avi file, but I did have reasons other than sheer impatience in this case. Firstly, I wanted to see this movie in the best possible setting and considering the buzz surrounding it, I didn’t want to see the movie in a packed theatre where there was every chance of having the screening ruined by idiots. And secondly, although I’d been dodging spoilers with the same fervour Michael Bay avoids sense and restraint, I had gleaned that although the differences in the cuts is minimal, many reviewers felt that the original festival version featured a far better ending and that the screener doing the rounds on the web was this cut.
Now having seen the movie and done a little more research, I can confirm that the changes to the theatrical cut are very minor and although the ending is different, the story remains essentially the same. And I’ll discuss these changes later on in the spoiler section of this review.
Paranormal Activity tells the story of a young couple, Micah and Katie, who are experiencing inexplicable events in their home. Katie believes the phenomena to be a haunting of some kind, whereas Micah is more sceptical. Hence he acquires a video camera and sets out to try and capture some of the odd happenings on film.
Yes, it’s yet another entry into the found footage genre, and in terms of its low budget origins, subject matter, and box office performance, there are obvious parallels with The Blair Witch Project. But, the good news for motion sickness sufferers is that Paranormal Activity isn’t another cavalcade of shaky cam. Although much of the movie features hand held shooting, there isn’t a whole lot of jiggling going on and many shots, including the main action sequences, have the camcorder mounted on a tripod.
But like its predecessor, Paranormal Activity has gained a reputation for being very frightening; a reputation which has grown from a genuine buzz about it from film fans to a huge outbreak of media hype. The tag line “scariest film ever!” is a great marketing shtick but overly hyperbolic. To begin with what actually inspires fear is a very subjective thing – for example if you’re petrified of spiders, then Arachnophobia, or even a cheesy romp like Eight Legged Freaks, will be your worst nightmare. Secondly although it would appear general audiences will flock to see a horror film that is allegedly actually scary for once, trumpeting as the most fear inducing film will serve as a kind of challenge to many viewers who are going to go in determined not to be scared. And this combative approach really isn’t the best way to appreciate a film of any kind – after all you can very easily pick any film to bits and voluntarily take yourself out of the movie. And like the Blair Witch Project before it, I can see the general public ultimately remembering Paranormal Activity as a triumph of hype rather than film making.
Equally those who think a good horror movie should follow the ghost train model and stick with the formula of tits, gore and jump scares will come out underwhelmed. For Paranormal Activity is a movie that slowly unfolds its plot, carefully crafting its characters and attempting to keep everything as realistic as possible. So if you favour good story telling and subtlety over flashy special effects and buckets of blood, there’s every chance that Paranormal Activity will work for you.
An opinion I’ve encountered a lot over the years, often from non-horror fans, is that the scariest things are those that could happen in real life. Now I’d dispute this, as there are plenty of horror movies that feature a real world menace yet no one is ever going to include them in a run-down of most terrifying cinema. One only as to look to the vast catalogue of slasher movies to prove this – many feature a psychopathic but human killer and inspire yawns and laughs rather than heart-stopping terror.
But there is a grain of truth in this view. A more accurate assessment would be that the scariest horrors are the ones that convince the audience that this could happen. For example, the reason The Exorcist was such a box office smash and has terrified countless viewers over the years isn’t because there is a widespread belief in demons but the way the plot is constucted. It’s structured in such as way that all the possible scientific explanations of Reagan’s affliction are scotched one by one, so that by the time the demonic possession takes full effect the audience fully believes that the satanic forces on screen are real.
For Paranormal Activity, director Oren Peli has stated that he extensively researched genuine cases of hauntings and strove to keep all the events on screen as believable as possible. And as some one who has long been fascinated by the paranormal, I can affirm that the events in the movie do reflect accurately the symptoms of a genuine haunting. Everyone knows some one who has a spooky tale to tell concerning strange noises in the night or sighting a mysterious apparition, and Paranormal Activity captures the same tone as such real world ghost stories.
Naturally the found footage enhances the film’s sense of reality. The fact that it was shot in a real house (actually Oren Peli’s own pad incidentally) literally brings the terror home to roost. However other than the recognisably real setting, what really sells the story is the characters. To begin with both Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherstone) looks like real people and their performances are very natural. When casting, Peli looked for actors that would have a good chemistry together and could improvise and this decision pays off in spades.
At its heart Paranormal Activity is as much about Micah and Katie’s relationship as it is about the haunting. Their relationship has real depth and we’ll return to look at this aspect of the film in the following spoiler section. The way the film is constructed, with most of the haunting taking place during the night-time sequences, we get to see the ongoing and cumulative effects of the phenomena on their lives. All to often movies are set in a parallel universe where the characters don’t have bills to pay, jobs to go to and are generally impervious to biological rules such as fatigue and shock. However in Paranormal Activity, Peli has thought through his scenario and shows us the real world effects of having ghosts haunting your home. This cycle of event then aftermath ups the credibility of their situation considerably, and each scene of daytime reflection and reaction in turn makes the next outbreak of weird phenomena all the more frightening.
As for the titular paranormal activity itself, Peli is definitely as student of the “suggest rather show” school. Which is not to say that we don’t see anything, the malevolent force plaguing Micah and Katie do plenty but we only really see the results of its actions. And the film is more effective for it; in a work such as this which is about out fears of the dark, of the unknown if you summon the effects wizards and wheel out the monstrous being in all its latex/CGI glory, the mystery and atmosphere tend to evaporate.
William F. Nolan, author of Logan’s Run, summed up the problems of the full show approach – you can carefully build up tension, fear and threat with an unknown horror but when you finally throw open the door and reveal your monster the audience reaction tends to be one of relief. For example, if you reveal that your terrifying monster is a ten foot tall bug, the audience will be saying to themselves “OK it’s a ten foot insect, I can deal with that - I was worried it was a hundred foot bug!”.
Paranormal Activity gets around this problem by showing us just enough. Although the haunter is never revealed, we see enough of its actions to establish it as a presence in these scenes. And the audience is given enough hints to imagine what it actually is themselves. In not parading spectres on the screen and keeping their manifestations to a believable level, the film generates a sense of unease and the uncanny and effectively turns the audience’s imaginations against themselves. The copious phantasmagoria conjured up in Poltergeist, impressive as it is, is unlikely to engender a fear of coffins rocketing through your floor whereas everyone is scared by the idea of hearing something moving about in your house in the dead of night.
All in all, Paranormal Activity is an impressive little chiller and a fine addition to the canon of cinematic ghost stories. It may have only been shot in a week, but the deft plotting and excellent performance clearly show that a considerable amount of time was spent thinking through the storyline and rehearse the cast. Rather than being constrained and restricted by the low budget, Peli has embraced these limitations and turned them to the film’s advantage.
But of course the big question is – did it scare me? And the simple answer is yes it bloody well did! By the last third, when the haunting is hitting full stride, my heart was going like a demented jackhammer and one moment in particularly literally had my hair standing on end. So is it the one of the scariest films of all time? For me, the most terrifying films as those that literally have given me a sleepless night, and although Paranormal Activity had conjured up a palpable sense of dread and spooked me profoundly, I did sleep like a log. However I must confess that before retiring I made damn sure all my doors and windows were firmly shut and removed anything that might possibly cast an ominous shadow from my bedroom – the last thing I wanted after watching this movie was to awaken in the dim watches of the night to glimpse a figure lurking in the corner of the room or find that my bedroom door had popped ajar.
So although Paranormal Activity has won a place in the hallowed handful of movies that kept me up all night, it definitely came close and I’ve no hesitation in placing it in the top ranks of the second division of frightening films. Of course, your experience may be somewhat different and I don’t doubt that for some of you it may well turn out to be the scariest film you ever see.
Continue to the Spoiler section