Paranormal Activity (Horror Movie) Review

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Summary: Paranormal Activity is about a couple beset with otherworldly forces. In an attempt to capture evidence of their travails, they exacerbate the situation and their life becomes, well, a horror movie.

Monday, 04 January 2010

(18:36:18 CST)

Paranormal Activity (Horror Movie) Review

I watched Paranormal Activity with my sister-in-law last night. The hype behind the movie was massive but I'm fairly hype-proof when it comes to horror and she, if anything, tends to be anti-hype. One has to be if one likes horror. If you buy into the hype on the back of any given horror DVD box that the movie contained within is, and this is true of pretty much any horror movie DVD box, the "scariest movie of all time" then you will be continuously disappointed. Horror geeks like myself all eventually learn. As for PA, it definitely has had some hype, and it can be said to be one of those rare indie movies that hits public consciousness in full. It deserves it, too, the latter if not the former, if you are curious about where I am going with this review. Paranormal Activity is excellent indie horror. It has flaws in both script and acting; but we are talking about a dozen people focusing on two actors (with three or so others glimpsed here or there) in a single house with mostly everyday objects as props managing to make a movie this effective? Well played. I am impressed.

This is the sort of movie that feeds into your inability to escape and so turning down the lights and refusing to talk to those around you will double the experience. I did neither, but that's a recommendation if you need it. Paraphrasing and elaborating on something Takashi Miike has said (see the special features of "Imprint"), you feel horror from a similar source as you feel love. You have to be able to get into the lives of the character, and then be stuck to watch them suffer. Paranormal Activity is horror boiled down to its primary colors. There is a couple. They are cute and friendly. Show them in bed clothes (I have a theory that showing an attractive female in bed clothes triggers a vulnerability response). Then subject them to nocturnal goings-on. The night scenes are mostly accomplished by a still camera recording background sounds in a darkened room, thumps and low hums, with some scenes of ill-lighting and claustrophobic lens-eye views. It works because you have bought into this couple and because you are thrust into the bedroom as boards creek and knocks go on downstairs.

By the time the noises have gave way to physical manifestations, possessions, and mind-games; you realize the malevolence is a notch higher than first assumed and that this whole movie has been making the act of recording the reason behind pain. You share the guilt with your voyeurism. Cheap trick? Yes, but effective.

Outside of name-dropping everything shoved into pop-Catholic-horror in the 70s (demons! Ouija boards! exorcisms!); its biggest flaw is allowing for sloppy scripting to move the plot forward in places. Katie rarely displays any sort of personal strength. She is shown to be severely frustrated but refuses to do anything about the camera or the situation besides beg. Micah (pronounced mee-ca) is continually pigheaded (one time using a loophole of definitions to sneak something by her and then gets surprised she is upset) and is driven by a self-obsession well past the point it would make sense1. He claims to be working on solving the situation but is show doing only an absolute minimal amount of research (once in a mostly pictorial book, once on a single web page). They call in one expert twice, who refuses to stay on screen for more than a few minutes either time, and mostly just lock themselves away in the house. Sure, things happen off camera, but when you spend five minutes of time showing keys on the floor, spend an equal amount of time showing them giving a crap about their predicament. Later, a justification for some of Micah's actions are shoehorned into a scene like a bad skin-graft. The movie is peppered with repetition, role-reversals, and mood shifts to bring the movie "back on track" where they can film again the next night. As good as the night time scenes are, they start to lose impact when such machinations are needed. For most of a month, they were made the victims and given no other alternative.

Still, this movie is very, very watchable and, in our continuously shallow horror waters, stands out as something fresh and new. People less sensitive to people towards their own destruction in horror movies might not even notice my complaints. I am not sure how the handcam horror genre is going to develop, now that it has come something like full circle, but this is in the top three uses of the effect (the other two are Cannibal Holocaust and [REC]). I would say ignore the hype and watch it. Turn out the lights, sit back, and get into it. Try not to throw something at the screen when Micah ignores Katie for the thirtieth time just to explain why they have done nothing of value, and enjoy. This movie gets a Good from me.

Si Vales, Valeo

1: The final product can almost be taken almost as a parable about abusive relationships. You have a milquetoast female unwilling to leave a destructive situation and a boyfriend who keeps making claims about his masculinity and how this is "my house" and "my girlfriend". He refuses to listen to her, only increasing the suffering she is going through, and eventually cuts her off from the outside world. She goes through stages of depression, mood swings, anger, catatonia, and denial. He goes through stages of anger at her followed by wallowing apologies. They even stage him, initially, as though he might be tricking her into making this movie for his own ends. Had the plot twist been that he was just beating her the whole time and faking the demon stuff to make her miserable, I would not have been surprised.


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