Saturday, October 10, 2009

The League watches: Paranormal Activity

(editor's note: I just re-read this, and I came off rather harshly. I'm adding some content, because I really didn't think the movie was bad.)

You may or may not have heard about the movie "Paranormal Activity". It's currently in release and showing at the Alamo South in Austin.

I recommend reading about Paranormal Activity rather than viewing the trailer as the trailer probably gives away more than was wise to reveal, and certainly spoiled one or two of the film's tricks for me.

The biggest thing that this movie has going against it is that its been released about a full decade after "The Blair Witch Project", and to not draw a comparison would be sort of ridiculous. Like "Blair Witch" or the more recent "Cloverfield", "Paranormal Activity" purports to be "found footage" of a series of uncanny events, with a small, tight cast acknowledging that there is a camera on and running.*

I suppose my one miscue from the trailer was in believing the movie was about "Ghost Hunters"-style paranormal investigators, when it is really about a couple recording events in their own amazingly plush San Diego home (the most paranormal thing about the movie is how unlikely both the size of the house and "decorate with all the taste of a model home" look the place has).

Like Blair Witch, there also only about four characters in the movie, and that works in the context of the movie. In fact, I'm not really clear on who some of the people listed on IMDB are supposed to be. I suppose there are cut scenes?

I just never really got the same thrill from this movie that I got from Blair Witch. Perhaps because there's so much less geography? Perhaps because Blair Witch truly felt as if the actors were being toyed with, and here, our fiend feels like he's almost just a pest for part of the movie? Maybe because the thing really does have a "been there, done that" feel in its own way?

hope you like this shot, because you will see A LOT of it

In a lot of ways, it's kind of a low-budget "Blair Witch" meets the 1960's version of "The Haunting", and so in that way, the movie isn't half bad, all while not really bringing anything entirely new to the table. In fact, the filmmakers depend so much on their pretense of the "first person" camera shooting that they clearly were worried more about story or, in many ways, character.

There's a lot of pressure on the talent in this movie, as they're left to practical lighting, running their own camera and behaving like people caught on tape rather than actors playing out a scene. I can't really fault them for scenes that seemed like an improv class from time to time, and they certainly carried off the spookier scenes very well. By and large, they carried the enormous weight put upon them. Actor Micah Stone does a good job, but Katie Featherstone has more acting challenges, which she handles relatively well, without becoming oddly unsympathetic a la "Heather" from The Blair Witch, while bringing "production value" to the movie.

I am not a true horror fan. It's not that I dislike horror, but whatever gene sequence one needs to truly appreciate horror (like our friend, Wings) I simply lack. But there are certain things I find myself liking in horror movies. I think every Halloween I mention my love of "The Haunting", and because this movie replicates that same brand of fear, I can salute it. And I do feel the director and producers understood what makes a horror movie work without relying on a factoryline of teens getting it in a grizzly fashion.

But you do wish you had a better feel for who the characters are, and maybe that's what made "Blair Witch" work for me, but less so this movie, and not at all "Cloverfield".

The League's Verdict:
It's possibly a renter, or a great option if you're in a Halloween mood, and you're not a fan of slasher pics, the latest Saw installment, etc... It does have some genuinely creepy parts, even if the ending feels completely telegraphed from the first frame.

*It should be noted that I did have the passing thought that the immediacy of self-documentation as a trope in horror is nothing new. After all, Frankenstein and Dracula were written as journals and self-narration. Adding a video camera may be just the natural evolution of that idea.

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