Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"Paranormal Activity," Paranormal Success

Take that, Hollywood.

You've been content to (almost) exclusively crank out pale, regurgitated horror fare for years and it has finally crept up and bit you. Some guy from Rancho Peñasquitos got two actors and $15,000 together and managed to make the best horror movie in years, possibly decades. Furthermore, he took a filmmaking gimmick that you have repeatedly failed to make functional – the "found footage" conceit – and made it look easy. Now, I suppose some credit is due to you here; you were smart enough to buy up the distribution rights and give the film wide enough exposure to make it the most profitable independent film ever. Then again, that was all at the behest of one of your reigning oligarchs, Steven Spielberg, who believed his copy of the movie was haunted. Perhaps you still have quite a bit to worry about.

Oren Peli's "Paranormal Activity" is meat and potatoes filmmaking. It is very easy to forget that less is generally more, and that this maxim holds particularly true for the horror genre. Yet, every aspect of this film benefits from precisely this sort of simplicity. Sure, many of the constraints that this film had were not necessarily Peli's choice, but many people would see his circumstances as an excuse to never even try. Thankfully, he did try and he was wildly successful.

"Paranormal Activity" presents the videotaped account of a San Diego couple's brush with the, ahem, paranormal over the course of a few weeks. The film begins when Micah (Micah Sloat), a day trader and technophile, switches on his new video camera. His girlfriend, Katie (Katie Featherston) claims to have been experiencing the presence of supernatural beings for the better part of her life. Thing is, most of the encounters occur when Micah is sleeping. He sees the camera as a way to have a bit of fun with it all and, hell, maybe even shed light on the situation. So, he proceeds to film just about every moment of their lives, even going so far as to leave a light on in their bedroom, so he can put the camera onto a tripod and capture them sleeping. Katie is cautiously complicit in the experiment. She is not a big fan of the camera (or Micah's lighthearted attempts at filming their more intimate moments) but she welcomes the opportunity for some vindication.

Needless to say, that vindication comes – in due time. Peli's script proceeds at a meticulous pace, always laying its next card on the table with devilish protraction. The film's overnight scenes are where the vast majority of the action takes place and their intensity is ratcheted up one, and only one, notch each time they roll around. What begins as a faint rumbling sound on the first night slowly evolves over the course of the film into the mayhem of the final night. So precise is this progression that each time the next night comes around, and the film returns to that static, blue-tinged, wide shot of the couple lying in bed, the shiver that runs down your spine multiplies in its intensity.

Perhaps an even larger surprise is that the intervening scenes do not drag. In fact, they keep the pace perfectly. Micah and Katie's relationship is obviously put through the ringer during the course of the film, but they have a genuine affection for each other, which makes the drama between them involving and sympathetic. Micah can be a bit smug, and it causes more than one hurtful moment for Katie, but he never fails to do the right thing when the chips are down. Similarly, she never fails to recognize his fundamental decency. This is one of the less obvious areas where the film benefits from its independent status; the characters never stop exhibiting a basic three-dimensionality, no matter how expedient the alternative may have become. With the result being a movie where people you actually care about are in danger, it pays off.

Peli's apparent genius, however, does not end with the script. Films like "Cloverfield" have proven that the on-the-scene-camcorder-footage approach to shooting a horror film can bear downright disastrous results. Yet, the moment they see Micah unfolding his tripod, skeptics will breathe a sigh of relief. Peli's cinematography is certainly convincing as amateur camcorder footage, with much practical lighting (as in, free of professional equipment) and the requisite shakiness. Thing is, whoever is holding the camera at any given point knows better than to swing the damn thing about or hold it at odd angles. Horrendous camerawork may be realistic in some circumstances, but that does not make a movie any more watchable.

Characters will even put the camera down at times, creating some amazing results. This includes scenes where we are left to marinate in the tension of an empty room or where our skewed perspective creates claustrophobic compositions. At one point, Micah finds Katie sitting on the floor, shaking. He places the camera on the floor and embraces her. We can only see the floor and, at the very top of the frame, Katie's quivering legs. Touching and unsettling at the same time, it is one of many moments of simple brilliance.

Any good horror director borrows from Hitchcock and Peli is no exception. Much of the claustrophobic tension in "Paranormal Activity" can be attributed to the camera being confined to Micah and Katie's two-story house, much like James Stewart's apartment in "Rear Window." The fact that Micah works from home and that the couple descends into a state of drowsy exasperation over the course of the film essentially prevents them from leaving the house. It makes the sole, significant outdoor scene all the more surreal.

So limited is the scenery in this film that roughly a quarter of it is one setup – the overnight shot of Micah and Katie in bed. I have never seen a movie that milked so much drama out of a single angle. For most who have seen "Paranormal Activity," one look at the murky interior of the bedroom will be enough to recall much of the film's terrors. Peli devises a number of memorable scenarios that take place in these scenes. Some are a bit unoriginal but many are quite fresh, and all of them are genuinely effective within the context of the film. His use of the bedroom door is nothing we have not seen before, but the events involving the door happen at such long intervals and with such delicate escalation that he manages to reinvigorate this tired device. By the film's halfway point, the audience begins to dread nightfall as much as Micah and Katie do.

My analysis of the bedroom door in the movie should make this clear: "Paranormal Activity" has no pretensions. It is content to utilize the simplest means to build tension and elicit scares. Consequently, the film is a revelation – a reminder of what truly good horror filmmaking looks like. The film largely deserves all of the buzz it has received. Which is, of course, a double-edged sword; Paramount has already snatched up the rights to "Paranormal Activity 2." Now that is horrifying.

On a broader note...

I have run into a few people who insist that this movie is rather terrible. Now, this is par for the course with sleeper horror hits (see: "The Blair Witch Project"), but I think part of it can be blamed on the fact that people have forgotten how to watch movies. One person I spoke to, I believe, watched a bootleg of the film on his laptop. Hear that? That is the sound of palm-to-forehead contact.

Film requires immersion in order to be effective and this is especially true for horror film; of course the movie will seem largely ineffective if you are watching it on your cell phone as you drive to work in broad daylight with the radio on! That is not the movie's fault. If you at all intend to enjoy a film – and I assume most people put on a movie with this intention – you have to do everything within reason to remove yourself from the outside world for those few minutes. That means shutting off the lights, watching it on a screen that's bigger than your forearm and, for the love of all that is Good, turning off your shitting cell phone. Until people do that, I will have a great deal of trouble sympathizing with any gripes they may have with a film.

Also, stealing movies is wrong, kids. Especially when it is a movie with a $15,000 budget. Come on!

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