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Paranormally Active

Paranormal Activity PointFew films have experienced the frenzied internet marketing hype that Paranormal Activity has received in the last few months: sure, this year has also given us the phenomenal trailer to Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus (a far better experience than the film, reviewed here) and Neill Blomkamp’s debut feature District 9 proved that aliens could still rake in the cash at the box office. But the effortless success that Paranormal Activity has had in the US has kept the film riding high in terms of takings and hype. It’s even been a consistently trending topic on Twitter since even before its release.

Paranormal Activity doesn’t open this side of the Atlantic until the 25th November (though you might be lucky enough to catch a paid preview screening on Friday 13th) but it was also the surprise film at this year’s Horrorthon at Dublin’s IFI, and if that screening is anything to go by, the film will prove just as successful this side of the Atlantic as in the US.

Befitting a low-budget film (costing only $15, 000 to make), the film takes a mockumentary style in which the lines between reality and the film are blurred: some text at the beginning claims that the footage was found after the events of the film, footage which is recorded on a camcorder bought to record the strange nocturnal events in the home of Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston (the actors lend their own names to the characters in the pursuit of realism.) What follows are about three weeks of footage (cut down to a little over ninety minutes) as Micah and Katie come to realise that the disturbances in their house aren’t just neighbourhood children or creaking floorboards, but a malevolent presence that doesn’t take kindly to being challenged or recorded.

Paranormal Activity‘s strengths lie in the fact that it knows how to play with its audience. There’s little identifiably scary in the film: turning its back on the zeitgeist, there’s no gore, no men with big knives standing behind the hero and heroine, not even a scary mask to be seen. Rather, this is a film that taps into some very primal fears, arguably in a very clever way, putting its audience through the same experiences as its characters and providing a fear that can neither be ignored, nor run away from.

paranormalMost horror films have a bad guy (or maybe the word ‘thing’ would be more appropriate) and many films depend on this ‘thing’ to bring the horror to the title, whether it’s purely visual (like the Necromorph in Alien) or experiential (who doesn’t squirm in terror at the helplessness experienced by hordes of teens as they’re followed by a slasher?) Paranormal Activity combines both aspects: in one of the opening scenes, Katie and Micah are visited by a paranormal investigator who tells them outright that this is not a ghost that they are dealing with, but rather a demon that has been haunting Katie since she was a child. As Micah investigates further, the book he reads on demons give us an idea of just what the presence in their house might look like, and some other scenes show us the kind of power it has. And that’s the point when things start to get scary.

There are two basic types of scene within the film: during the day, Micah (or occasionally Katie) will carry the camera around, watching footage recorded the night before or just talking about their experiences. The handheld camera makes sure that we look where they do (or rather where director Oren Peli wants us to.) By night, the camera rests on a tripod in the corner of Micah and Katie’s bedroom, focussed on their open bedroom door and the darkness of the stairs beyond. The fixed camera means there’s no chance to look away, no hope that the camera might break, and as there are crashes and sounds from downstairs (and sometimes, the sound of stomping up the stairs), there’s a constant fear that something’s there in the darkness, looking at the camera (and us) and is something that will become visible any minute.

The two types of scene begin to blur as the film progresses: as the demon’s manifestations become more difficult to ignore, Micah runs to the camera before leaving the room to investigate, meaning yet again that the audience have to investigate as well, and will be forced to confront whatever awaits the couple. It a roller-coaster ride of a movie, and once the tension picks up, rarely lets go, proving an insidious and uncomfortable force to sit and watch, in a way that only the best horror films can be.

But the film isn’t all about the bumps and scares, effective as they may be: Micah and Katie are both better realised as characters than those featured in many other horror films. Both are flawed and do stupid things, which may irritate some audiences, but also make their characters quite believable. Much like the characters, there are aspects of the film that might prove annoying, wondering why certain things weren’t done differently, but there are already two different versions of the film (the current cinematic release and the original version screened at festivals in 2007 with different scenes and an older, less effective ending that has already found its way onto the internet.)

paranormal_activity-479x710For a small-budget film originally made over two years ago, Paranormal Activity has already proven itself to be one of the most successful movies of the year, even beating the gore-fest of Saw VI at the box office: the comparisons to The Blair Witch Project are already coming in droves, but admirably so, and this will hopefully encourage more horror movies that focus on being scary than just gruesome or gory excuses for special effects.

This is really one of those films you need to see in the cinema (if only to be sure that there’s nothing in the house with you when watching it) and it’s not just the first-person camera that gives this the feeling of being more an experience than a film. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen anything so insidiously terrifying, and even the most stalwart of viewers who’ll never admit to getting scared at a film will have to acknowledge how effective the film is, even if they’re the only ones able to get a good night’s sleep afterwards.

Zombie Rating: A-

Paranormal Activity is on general release now in the US and opens in Ireland on November 25th, with preview screenings on November 13th.

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  1. themaddhatter
    November 2, 2009 at 10:24 PM

    Gotta admit this is a pretty good movie..when its night time. I’m a big horror movie fan and theres nothing scarier than seeing the familiar on screen. The fear of the dark hallway at night. The fear of something hidden being present when you are most vulnerable, all of which this movie did very well, however i felt the daytime scenes took away from this. We got glimpses of petty relationship squabbles which totally broke the tension. The daytime scenes seemed boring and drawn out. I “suffered” them in order to see the night time scenes. Not sure which ending has been released but…

    KEN: I don’t like editing people’s comments, but I had to in this case for the sake of spoilers. Suffice it to say, themaddhatter’s seen both ending’s and preferred the original.

  2. November 2, 2009 at 9:54 PM

    Seems good but terrifies me just with the thought that I’ll be scared of my own bed after viewing.

    It’s also worth noting that it’s an insanely bad idea to release so late after a US launch in the EU. Yes, we have a smaller audience, but we also have the internet and it’s arguable that this film will succeed with downloads more then actual bums-in-cinemas come November 25th.

    • Ken
      November 2, 2009 at 11:14 PM

      Ah, somebody read my culch.ie article then…

      I’d like the think the majority of the cinema-going public are better than that though: despite my own opinion on the movie, I think the Wolverine movie already proved that downloading doesn’t necessarily affect the takings. But yes, the film will have you scared of your own bed and the dark, for at least 24 hours anyway. Not that I’m using my own experiences as a basis for that or anything…

  1. November 13, 2009 at 3:59 PM

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