The M/C Review: 'Paranormal Activity' sneaks up on the audience
I originally reviewed "Paranormal Activity" back in January of 2008, the same time that I reviewed "Cloverfield," and since then I've been waiting for people to get their shot at seeing this micro-budget haunted house movie. Finally laying eyes on it again, this time with a full audience at the Drafthouse, that wait feels justified. As long as Paramount doesn't oversell the film too hard, they've got a shot at a real buzz sensation here.
Here's some of what I originally had to say about it:
... I'm not sure who is going to buy PARANORMAL ACTIVITY after it screens at Slamdance, but I'm fairly sure someone will. It's an accomplished little thriller that uses the "found footage" framework to tell a ghost story that is more effective than any remake of a Japanese ghost story that the studios have offered up in the last five years.
So when you buy it, Hypothetical Distributor, do yourself a favor. Right away, play it straight. When you sell it, use the actors. When you put up the website, don't try to convince me it's real. The thing about these viral games and this sort of "extended reality" thing is that you have to be careful. Too much of it can turn the audience against your film or create expectations your film can't deliver. When people invested time and attention in all the online games for CLOVERFIELD (which wasn't that much, truth be told... a few websites updated sporadically with a few cryptic bits and pieces), they built up this mythology that they thought was going to play out in the film. However, by the very nature of what kind of movie they set out to make, director Matt Reeves and writer Goddard and producer Abrams never planned to offer ANY answers, something which has infuriated some viewers.
[more after the jump]
Right now, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY does not have a page on the IMDb. Right now, the film has a very small web presence, and trying to find out any information about the writer/director can be maddening. I wanted to dig deeper and do some reading after seeing the film, but I ran into a wall. The film was shown twice at the Slamdance festival, on the 18th and the 20th, and it also played at Screamfest in LA back in October. But so far, it's hard to find any information on it. Evidently, there's been some work done on the film since that Screamfest LA premiere, and what I saw is what's playing now, the new version of the film. It's tight, it's genuinely scary, and I think it's got real commercial potential. One thing it has going for it that CLOVERFIELD never quite got right is the empathy thing: star Katie Featherston makes you not only believe, but also give a shit. The film matters more because you care.
I know. Seems simple, right? The single biggest complaint about CLOVERFIELD is that nobody likes the kids that you're supposed to follow through the movie. I'm a little surprised at just how much everyone hates them... they didn't strike me as "rich fucking douchebags," as I've seen many talkbacks describe them. But I don't think any of the characters are defined enough or interesting enough to really pull you through the film. What works is the situation, not the people. In PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, it is essential that you like Katie because this isn't a city-scaled disaster. This is something that is specifically happening to one person. This is a targeted haunting. It is an attempt to break her down, and the film demands that you feel what she feels in order for it to work completely.
The night after I watched this one, I gave the disc to my sister-in-law, who was on her way out to spend the night with her boyfriend. She's a horror fan, and I was curious to see if something that has so little overt material in it, with no gore and no big-budget effects, could win her over. The next day, I saw her at lunch, and I asked her what she thought of it. She punched me in the chest, hard enough to bruise me, and told me that she didn't sleep at all because of the movie, and neither did her boyfriend. She asked me if it was real, and for about two seconds, I wanted to play PT Barnum with her, but I believe what I said above... that's a mistake. It just gets people mad later. So I explained that it's just a movie, and the relief that poured off of her was practically visible. The movie really got under her skin.
It's a film that really does play to the most basic and primal fears we have. Loss of control over our lives. Fear of the dark. Fear of the unknown. What happens when your home, the one place you should feel safest, suddenly becomes unsafe for you? Katie Featherston plays "Katie" in the film, and Micah Sloat plays "Micah." They're a young couple who are still fairly new to living together at the start of the film. Micah is the primary cameraman in the film, something that begins because Katie reveals to him, not long after they move in together, that she has experienced several strange things over the course of her life that could be described as "hauntings." Now a few odd things have happened in their house, and she's afraid it may be starting again. Micah's fascinated, and he can't help but view her problem as a project, something to solve or fix or just plain enjoy.
The film's scares start small, but don't be fooled into thinking this is going to be a case of never seeing anything. It may not be an effects-oriented film, and it may not deal in much gore... hell, I think this could get a PG if not for language... but the film definitely plays it straight and gives you a haunting for your $10. It delivers. There are still plenty of questions left to argue about after the film's wrenching conclusion, but you'll feel satisfied. It's a real movie, with a real beginning, middle, and end.
And that's the biggest trick with these found footage films... they have to play it "real," but also adhere to certain conventions of narrative. They have to tell us a story with characters and all the devices of storytelling, and they have to do so in a way that never quite overtly acknowledges that a story is being told. That's not easy. I sort of liked the way Drew Goddard and Matt Reeves handled flashbacks in CLOVERFIELD, with a glitch in the recording offering up an earlier day that had been taped over with the events of the film. They're too perfectly timed, a little too perfectly written, but it's a clever solution to a difficult problem. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY negotiates some of the trickier narrative stuff with ease, and the film never once feels like it's straining against the restrictions of the device. It never felt to me like the film was trying to cheat. Everything you see could arguably have been taped by the characters this way, and I don't really see anything here that pushes my credulity to the breaking point. Overall, this is one of those horror films that I would feel comfortable recommending to almost anyone, and that's rare. The only caveat is "Do you want to be scared?" and if the answer is yes, then I'd say this film's a safe bet.
That's still how I feel. When you sell the film as "the scariest movie of all time," as they're starting to, the danger is that audiences walk in with a "Prove it" attitude, and that's not the kind of film this is. It's a small movie, more about milking a mood than delivering one big shock after another, and audiences will go with it if they feel like they're discovering something. It's got to work as a stealth weapon.
Seeing it again, I really am struck by how much Katie Featherston is the key to the whole thing. Micah is not a particularly strong actor, and there are moments where I don't quite buy him. With her, though, every moment feels right on the money and real. She's lovely, although she's not "movie pretty." She looks like someone's real girlfriend, with a real figure, a real face, and as a result, you buy that this could be actual footage and not something Hollywood coughed up. Director Oren Peli is tackling "Area 51" in his next film, and I think it sounds like perfect subject matter. He's got a real feel for how to milk a scene for every bit of tangible suspense.
I think the "new" ending that's on it now is fine, although I regret the use of CGI at the very very very very end. Didn't need it. Still, it's a minor quibble. This is a strong movie that should please both hardcore horror fans and casual viewers equally, something that's very difficult to do.
The film will be sneaking into theaters little by little, market by market, so pay attention, and when it opens near you, check it out.
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