Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Paranormal Activity" Review

"Paranormal Activity" presents an unsettling and uncompromising reality. Without the context of a hype-fueled theatrical release or reviews like this, a believer in the supernatural could easily perceive the found-footage aesthetic as honest documentary. After all, it was made for only eleven thousand dollars, features one location, and a principal cast of two. The print that ran at the Bridge for last weekend's midnight screening was even bereft of credits. Nothing betrays the internal logic of the film, which is pretty cool in a decade of increasingly glib, grandstanding splatter flicks usurping the once-credible horror name.

Comparisons will inevitably be drawn to "The Blair Witch Project," or indirectly, "Cannibal Holocaust," which are suddenly hot commodities in genre filmmaking. Among the most successful viral marketing campaigns of the last few years are those for "Cloverfield," and "District 9," both of which experiment with docu-narrative hybrids, and have, along with the recent DVD release of Spanish zombie film, "REC" (and its North American remake, "Quarantine"), paved the way for "Paranormal Activity," which distributor Paramount has apparently been sitting on since 2007, to finally see the light of day, figuratively speaking.

But "Paranormal Activity" deserves to be seen on its own merit, and it delivers because first-time director Oren Peli has an intricate understanding of his audience. He establishes an intimately suspenseful atmosphere for his gradual exhibition of the paranormal, but anticipates the inherent silliness of the ghost story as well. The protagonists are live-in girlfriend/boyfriend Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat), the former of whom has had recurring encounters with the otherworldly, and the ladder representing the audience as a giggly, playful skeptic. It's Micah's idea to purchase a camera and document the ghostly goings-on (along with some not-so-noble, good-humored alternatives for the bedroom-mounted recording device), and it goes a long way in creating a convincing scenario for the audience.

Watching the couple sleep has a voyeuristic creepiness in and of itself, but the repeated use of a single brilliant angle, almost like CCTV footage, which places the camera over the foot of their bed, with a clear view through the open door into the shadowy hallway, with a digital time readout ticking away into the small hours of the morning, and with the occurrence of exponentially spookier incidents, viewers' eyes are left darting to every dark corner of the frame in taut anticipation.

I don't intend to part with any hard details about the film, as even its trailer can't help but give away a little too much of what is best experienced with a clean palate. The precognition of certain scenes may unwittingly trigger a subconscious calculation of the structure by what has and has yet come to pass, and that sort of spoils it. As for the conclusion, it suffices to say Peli saves his most genuinely frightening moment for last, and again, the more surprises you leave for yourself, the better.

Despite the excessive praise the film has received from the press and bloggers, insofar myself included, there are two minor issues that keep "Paranormal Activity" from receiving the fullest extent of my recommendation. First, the film is too long, with tension-killing exposition of relationship minutia that admittedly prevents the scares from growing stale, but wears out its welcome early on. The second is the occasionally questionable performance of Featherston. Neither issue has any serious adverse effect on film's accomplishments, but deserve mention nonetheless.

Ultimately, "Paranormal Activity" is a film that lives up to the hype as long as you don't buy into all the hype. It's a genuinely creepy, crawly little film that will likely disarm you if you're not bracing yourself for it. It's a terrific haunted house spook-out that will probably see wide release in time for Halloween. If not terrifying, "Paranormal Activity" settles for shivery fun that'll give you goose bumps. And that's something I haven't gotten from a film in far too long.


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