Thursday, October 29, 2009

Paranormal Activity: a review

My original response to the film Paranormal Activity.

Paranormal Activity is a movie of many dichotomies. It's amazingly suspenseful at times, yet crushingly dull at others. There are some genuinely frightening scenes, and yet also some frightfully inane moments. One of the two main characters is the target of a malevolent, monstrous force and seeks an answer to and release from the problem. The other central character acts -- during the same harrowing moments -- like it's playtime.

What the film gets right
There is no fang-brandishing, hunched, hairy CGI monster prowling this horror movie. Suspsense is masterfully created and heightened by the use of eerie soundscapes. The malevolent force makes its presence known by a low rumbling that sounds like the start of an earthquake. Then, behind that, there are various creaks and footsteps and other subtle manifestations. When there is visual manifestation of the presence, it comes in the form of the bedroom door moving on its own, the living room chandelier moving, as well as other objects. When one of the main characters powders the upstairs hallway with baby powder, hoping the entity will leave footprints, proof of the entity's movements in the house are scant, but present. They're compelling due to their scarcity.

What the film gets wrong
One word: Micah.

The main characters of Paranormal Activity are Katie and Micah. Katie, a college student, believes she's been haunted by a demonic presence since the age of eight. Micah is her live-in, day-trading boyfriend, to whom all of life, all the world, especially his girlfriend's supernatural stalker, is merely a joke; some spoof to be captured on camera. The movie is comprised of footage he shoots with a new video camera purchased for the purpose of documenting the "paranormal activity" that appears to follow Katie around.

Micah is obnoxious in the extreme from the get-go. He's an arrogant, shallow, frivolous frat-boy who alternates between inane jokes at Katie's expense, and empty bluster and boyish bravado when the shit starts to hit the fan. The inference of the movie is that Katie's haunting is exascerbated by Micah filming the happenings -- running the camera from a tripod while they sleep, capturing the majority of the activity when neither is conscious. Then there are the moments when Micah goes around the house with the camera "calling out" the demon like a drunken lout looking for a barfight.

Early in the movie, when Katie invites a psychic to the house to check things out, Micah comes up with one of his brilliant ideas: Why not get a Ouija board, ask the entity what it wants, and then give the entity what it asks for? To which the psychic says, "The problem is, I believe it wants Katie."

Micah's silent reaction? Most likely: Oh, didn't think of that.

After promising "not to buy a Ouija board," Micah cleverly borrows one -- and actually argues the fine distinction of his promise. Katie is rightfully outraged, having begged Micah not to undertake such actions that might aggravate the demonic presence. But since Micah cares for no one but himself, he is slow to acquiesce, and does so only after the damage is done.

What the film further gets wrong is how long Katie and Micah remain in the house where the escalating hauntings occur. Yes, it's established early on that Katie is the one being haunted, so moving locations, technically, wouldn't help. But given the foothold the presence has in that house, what could it hurt? By the time they decide on the obvious, it's too late.

In the end
The movie scores points with lay-ups -- meaning, all the scary stuff happens at about three o'clock on the morning. You can't miss with that. And you can't miss when you have scary shit happening to characters who are fast asleep -- especially under circumstances where no one with any ordinary functioning nervous system would be able to sleep. The reliance on the sound effects saves the day. But for every gain the sound departments achieves, the character Micah piddles away. The film is by turns jarring, affecting, annoying and boring.

It seems that Paranormal Activity maker, Oren Peli, is having trouble finding funding for his next film, Area 51. That may be due to the fact that not every film can be saved by sound effects. If Paranormal Activity says one thing about Peli, it's that he has no skill at as a storyteller. He creates situations, he can establish and heighten suspense, but the house of cards is continually falling due to the very weak story holding things together. He has a very difficult time making the audience care.

The film is worth seeing, but it all really boils down to watching two people being scared to death while they're asleep. That's the crux of the movie, which is not much for one to hang his hat on.

1 comment:

rick c said...

thanks for the review whetham. i've got less desire to see it now for myself. it would have been an interesting story if it turned out that katies haunter was her own soul traveling astrally in out of body experience stuff and trying to come to terms with a former life or something. a sort of trick ending i guess; like "why is it that katie is always asleep when shit goes down." kind of thing. that kind of stuff would be scarier to me because nothing scares me more than myself and my own untraversed dark passageways.