Editors note: Prior to the announcement of the midnight shows around the country, before they added Boston to the list, a show I could have made it to had it not been at midnight or had I not had to work in the morning, I saw that Madison, Wisconsin was on the list of confirmed theaters for the September 25th release date and it just so happened that I know a bunch of righteous dudes out that way in the form of the Tank Riot podcast. Quite possibly the most consistently entertaining hours of podcastery, Tank Riot has had the good graces to drop the Cinema Suicide name in the past and even included me in on of their excellent conspiracy theory episodes. I asked Viktor from the Tank Riot crew to review this year’s big horror hype fest, Paranormal Activity, and he was gracious enough to comply. Thanks, dude.
Made in 2006 with a budget of $11,000, Paranormal Activity screamed out of festivals (Screamfest 2007, Slamdance 2008, and now the Toronto International Film Fest 2009) with some of the best buzz a horror film has heard in the last five years. Critics have heaped a mountain of praise on the film, including the taunt to horror fans: “One of the scariest movies of all time” from Bloody-Disgusting. When Dreamworks acquired the film, plans were made to do a remake and not theatrically release the original. Those plans changed when one obligatory screening of the film led to audience members walking out, not due to boredom, but fear. Remake plans are now on hold and the original movie has hit the college circuit with hopes for a wider release soon. I managed to catch it in Madison, WI at the Marcus Eastgate midnight showing on Friday, September 25th.
The plot is fairly straight-forward. A young, middle class couple moves into a new home, where they become increasingly disturbed by a presence that may or may not be demonic but is particularly active at night while the couple tries to sleep. Katie, played by Katie Featherston, reveals to her boyfriend Micah, played by Micah Sloat, that she has been haunted on and off most of her life. Micah’s solution is to videotape everything at night with a brand new camera and get to the bottom of the issue. Thus starts, with a low budget, small cast and claustrophobic set, a truly great film. What makes this film so incredible is the use of the usually tedious and hampering cinéma vérité (mockumentary) style of The Blair Witch Project fame. I will admit that I loved Blair Witch when it came out. The gimmicky hand held shots heightened the terror and added a new and exciting dimension to horror storytelling. The true scares of that film were few for me, but I found the ending genuinely haunting. No other film in this genre had impressed me more or made me want to even see any more films in this style, until now. In a way, I felt Blair Witch built, defined and ended a genre in one fell swoop. From Diary of the Dead to Cloverfield, I found myself less invested in the films, but paying more attention to badly doled out plot points, phony-feeling shaky cameras and forced narratives that made me want to jump into the film and strangle a lead character or two (not a good sign for your narrative). I was less than amazed when “for some reason” (wink, wink) the camera was usually rolling so we wouldn’t miss a crucial plot point. That is a big problem with this genre. If everything is on film, it is hard to find a convincing reason for the camera to be there. If something happens off camera, it is only recapped later by the characters and I feel like I missed out on something and wish they could have filmed it somehow.
Paranormal Activity, on the other hand, is a near-perfect implementation of this mockumentary style. I was not only impressed with everything I saw on-screen, but was completely drawn into the reality of the film because of it. What did writer-director Oren Peli get right? Almost everything! Excellent writing, direction and acting helped Paranormal Activity avoid the pitfalls mentioned above. From the beginning of the film there is a realism and tone that is almost always missing from other attempts at cinéma vérité. True to the style, a disclaimer boasts that the film was edited after the footage was “found”. The documentary style gives ominous dates of events and good transitions between shots. What makes it better than other genre films is what is captured by the camera (with Micah as cameraman) and how it is edited together. Thanks very much to the use of a tripod, we also get far less shaky in our cam. From the outset, everything a regular person would do with a fancy, new camera (testing it in various lighting set-ups, shooting conversations, etc.) remains in the film and leads into the actual filming of the harrowing nights of the protagonists. In lesser hands, this could have been the start of a disaster where characters become caricatures and the set up detracts from the film. In Peli’s hands, the tone is subtle, the performances aren’t forced or exaggerated and that makes it all feel real. It is worth pointing out that these opening sequences are very well thought out and extremely authentic. In his role, Micah plays a lovable, funny and entertaining “regular guy” faced with claims of the paranormal. He documents everything and adds a glib reality to the proceedings that skeptics can relate to as he implements his night-time surveillance system and scoffs at psychics and demons alike. Katie, on the other hand, has a resigned acceptance of her haunting that progressively brings the scares to life. There are as many laughs in the beginning of the film as there are scares toward the end and I truly enjoyed getting to know these well-acted characters. Keep in mind this is a low budget film, the haunting is not high on Special Effects or CGI, but it’s a classic horror film that leads you with dread into the unknown. Each night, the director slowly ramps up the stakes and the terror until the end.
While this film is one of the best of the cinéma vérité genre, it’s also better than almost every horror film I’ve seen this year. On only a couple of minor points do I have anything negative to say. First, although I thought it was a great film, it wasn’t actually terrifying for me personally (your mileage may vary). Secondly, I felt the re-shot ending was a little abrupt. Other than that, I don’t want to be too hard on such an inventive, well-implemented film. To the horror aficionados I can say: I loved it. Do we really have to be terrified by every great horror film? If so, as an adult who has seen many, there are very few horror films that actually scare me anymore (Audition is one of the few). Is Paranormal Activity one of the scariest movies of all time? Not for me, but maybe for you. Just don’t miss the opportunity to find out though, it’s a great film either way. Was this a fantastic horror movie that everyone should see in the theater? Hell yes! I hope this film gets a wide release and no one watches it at home by themselves. While I was invested in the characters and genuinely creeped out at times, the crowd I saw the film with was often terrified. Like the trailer for the film, a lot of the audience members were gasping, grabbing each other and there were far more groans of fear and nervous laughter than in any film audience I have attended a film with this year. There were also a couple of librarians shouting “SHHHHH!” now and then. It reminded me of when I saw The Sixth Sense in the theater and guessed the major plot twist 10 minutes into the film. I still enjoyed the rest of the film, but when they eventually laid out the Bruce Willis twist for the audience and everyone cried out with gasps, I enjoyed it even more. Even though I wasn’t hauled in by The Sixth Sense, it was a lot of fun to hear the audience. Paranormal Activity is a gem of a film to be seen and enjoyed in theaters for the same reason. This is a great film for horror-savvy folks, but there is a lot of fun to be had by watching it with a great crowd!