Things That Go Bump
2007 // USA // Oren Peli // October 27, 2009 // Theatrical Print (St. Louis Cinemas Moolah Theater)
C+ - Ever since The Blair Witch Project slithered into theaters in 1999 to become the most profitable movie of all time, audiences have been periodically subjected to horror films that attempt to replicate various aspects of its formula, evidently with the hope that this will lead to a similar windfall. The staggering hype and backlash that attended Blair Witch's somewhat unexpected success—not to mention a subsequent decade of dispiriting decline in horror cinema—seem to have obscured an obvious truth. Namely, that much of the attention surrounding Blair Witch was driven by its astonishingly slick marketing campaign, one that gave viewers the impression that a fictional film was comprised of authentic found footage. The problem, of course, is that the public can theoretically be punked only once, and for this reason alone Blair Witch would seem to be a once-in-a-lifetime sort of phenomenon. Granted, there have been some satisfyingly scary attempts to rebottle the lightning, most notably the Spanish zombie thriller [•REC], but there seems to be little likelihood of a Blair Witch successor emerging when the original so ruthlessly exploited (and demolished) the credulity of contemporary horror film-goers.
Nonetheless, this hasn't deterred enthusiastic boosters from bestowing that dubious honorific on a little ghost story entitled Paranormal Activity. And I do mean little. Writer-director Oren Peli, shooting the entire film in his own house on a notoriously anemic budget of $15,000, has doubled-down on the notion that a horror movie doesn't have to be grandiose, polished, or even artful to be frightening (and I mean that in the best possible way). With a video camera, two actors, one location, and a few post-production flourishes, Peli delivers a post-Blair Witch take on the familiar haunted house scenario. With these limitations in mind, I'm inclined to be generous when assessing a film like Paranormal Activity, which is essentially a horror movie at its most elemental, a contraption designed to evoke terror. Only one question truly matters: Is it scary? The honest answer is, "Not really, but..."
In one of the film's fresher twists, we enter the story of Paranormal Activity after the spooky stuff has already been underway for some indeterminate amount of time. Micah (Micah Sloat) has just purchased a high-end digital video camera, complete with a night-vision setting, for the express purpose of documenting the odd goings-on that have been plaguing the suburban San Diego house that he and girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherstone) share. Initially, these phenomena are nothing more than weird noises that emanate from somewhere in the house, but this is sufficient to provoke Katie's anxiety and Micah's curiosity. Determined to prove or disprove the supernatural character of the strange occurrences, Micah begins carrying the camera everywhere and documenting everything. Most conspicuously, every night he mounts it on a tripod in the bedroom and switches on the night vision setting, in order capture anything unusual that might happen while he and Katie slumber.
Peli takes his time to lay the groundwork for the frightening stuff, dwelling on banalities early in the film in order to establish the layout of the house and sketch just enough of Katie and Micah's personalities so that he can put the screws to their outwardly solid relationship. The film portions out the morsels of creepiness very, very slowly, and they are initially so subtle that they almost seem like non-events. The first supernatural occurrence that the audience witnesses on Micah's camera is a rumbling sound that persists for a few seconds while the couple sleeps. That's it. The disturbances progress from there: sheets rustle, a door moves a few inches, a lamp sways, a shadow flickers across a wall. These occurrences aren't so much frightening as they are unsettling, partly because of the film's unvarnished visual style, and partly because it's so easy to imagine the weird things that might go on in our darkened bedrooms as we slumber.
Although Katie and Micah respond differently to the ghostly phenomena, neither one of them fits precisely into the Believer or Skeptic archetype that are staples of the genre. Katie is uneasy, reproachful, and eager to be rid of the entity has taken up residence in their house. For Micah, meanwhile, whatever fear the disturbances evoke in him is less potent than his urge to study them, and perhaps to understand what the intruding presence wants. Katie has her suspicions about that. Early in the film, she brings a psychic (Mark Fredrichs) to the house for a consultation, and she confesses that these phenomena have been following her since she was eight years old. Without much evidence at all, the psychic explains that Katie and Micah are being terrorized not by the departed soul of a human, but a demonic spirit bent on destruction. Peli doesn't devote too much time developing a mythology for his tale or even attempting to rationalize the strangeness, preferring to chalk up Katie's malevolent hanger-on to one of the universe's random cruelties. He does, however, connect it to her tale of a childhood fire, and adeptly calls back to this bit of history with a couple of downright haunting details.
The fundamental flaw that bedevils Paranormal Activity is that isn't particularly scary, which is troublesome in a horror film whose entire gimmick is its realistic aesthetic, one designed to trick the viewer into believing that its events actually happened. Peli exhibits admirable patience in maintaining a deliberate pace throughout the film, but at times this does a disservice to the film's mood, especially in the third act. Paranormal Activity begs for a narrative that plays out like the smooth tightening of a vice, but instead it just plods along, betraying Peli's lack of authorial sophistication. The disturbances caught by Micah's camera intensify over the course of the film, and while in the moment they are often gooseflesh-inducing, there is a disappointing lack of tension to the overarching story. Perhaps it's just that the found footage conceit has officially passed its sell-by date, but Paranormal Activity isn't especially convincing as a narrative. It doesn't help that the film concludes with a scene that proves neither enlightening nor shocking, with a dollop of creepshow gore that seems out of place amid the film's tone of slow-burn doom. (Certainly, the contrast to Blair Witch, whose most horrifying visual is simply a man standing in a corner, is not favorable.) Paranormal Activity's most enduring moment occurs earlier, when Peli offers a harrowing vision of a childhood nightmare: a sleeper snatched by the ankles and dragged screaming and clawing in vain from their bed into the hungry darkness.