Monday, October 26, 2009

Activity Summary

Paranormal Activity deserves a good review for no other reason than denying the latest stupid and disgusting chapter in the stupid and disgusting Saw series the #1 position that the producers of said series probably thought was their constitutionally guaranteed birthright. Perhaps the fact that Paranormal Activity is a pretty decent horror film had something to do with it.

Paranormal Activity is this year's low budget indie flick turned mega hit. The way it became a hit is similar to the methods used by last year's indie hit, the Christian melodrama Fireproof. Instead of a $50 million ad blitz, it became popular through alternative marketing that caused a word of mouth groundswell. Unlike Fireproof, this movie has gone beyond a narrow audience and has exploded into the mainstream.

Paranormal Activity is part of the Blair Witch "found footage" genre and it takes that to an extreme. If you were involved in set design, lighting or some other technical aspect of the film and wanted your family to see your name in the opening or closing credits, your out of luck. The movie opened with a title card thanking the families of Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston for the use of this footage at the beginning and one at the end telling what eventually happened to them. In between is digital video footage taken by them over a three week period chronicling their encounters with some sort of evil spirit.

The action starts the day Micah bought a camera. He and Katie, his live-in girlfriend, have been witnessing what seem to be supernatural events. Nothing too amazing, mind you. They hear bumps and footsteps, their car keys somehow wind up on the floor, that sort of thing. I do want to thank the producers for acknowledging the fact that Micah's camera was more more expensive and sophisticated than most hand held digital cameras that people get for home use. Details like that are usually easy to explain but really stick out when no one bothers to do so.

Micah and Katie bring in a psychic to try to find out if they actually have a ghost and, if so, what does it want? I think in the context of the story he was supposed to be a legitimate psychic but, like real life "psychics" he doesn't actually seem to know or do anything that could be described as psychic. He asks numerous questions about their lives and relationship that, had he asked me, would have elicited the response, "Um, being a psychic, shouldn't you already know this?" Anyway, Katie says that she's been having strange experiences like this periodically since she was eight causing the psychic to conclude that simply leaving the house wouldn't do any good since the haunting is connected to Katie, not the house. This also spared the audience from having to hear some guy shout out, "Why the hell don't they just leave?" The psychic suggests not antagonizing the ghost/spirit/demon/whatever (nice advice, genius) and also says they should stay positive and that they should not try to communicate with it since that, "opens a door." Micah waits about ten seconds after the guy has left the house to start daring the spirit to come out and show itself.

Things start getting worse after that. The strange footsteps get louder and more frequent. Doors open and close. Lights go on and off. Katie starts sleepwalking. A ouija board inexplicably catches fire. And Micah and Katie, partly from fear and partly from lack of sleep, start going crazy. The filmmakers use their low budget to their advantage and show us very little of the action preferring to have Micah and Katie react to the aftermath. I want to again thank the filmmakers for not doing that lame horror movie trick of opening a door and something like a cat suddenly lunge out. There are many times when they go looking for this thing. You're always afraid that a door will be opened or that a flashlight will suddenly reveal some shape moving out of the darkness. I think the reason that doesn't happen is because then the characters would ignore the, "leaving will do no good," warning, run screaming out of the house and the movie would be over. Also, the people who see this footage later would lose any to plausibly explain this. There's never really a time when you can't find some way to say this is a hoax or the work of a mentally ill person right up to the shocking and abrupt ending.

Paranormal Activity is a very good movie that held my attention so well that I forgot to eat the nuts-raisins-yogurt chips trail mix I bought (don't laugh, that stuff's awesome with a fraction of the fat of movie theater popcorn). It earns its R rating not for showing people being torn apart by oh so clever Rube Goldbergesque torture contraptions but for use of the F-word that escalates as the tension and fear mounts for the characters. Thus I am left with pleasant memories of a truly atmospheric and psychological horror film as I munch on some tasty leftover trail mix so it's a win-win for me.

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