Friday, October 30, 2009

October Horror-thon #30: "Paranormal Activity" (2009)

Paranormal Activity's bare-bones story centers on a twentysomething couple, Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston). As a young girl, Katie claims to have been haunted by a supernatural force that's apparently followd her to San Diego. Micah uses this revelation as an excuse to stock up on camera equipment and play ghost hunter, but it's serious business for his significant other. As recording begins, the amount of unexplained phenomena steadily increases. Objects move of their own volition, the lights are suspiciously wonky, and disturbing sounds erupt out of nowhere. After consulting an expert (Mark Fredrichs), the young lovers deduce that a demon has targeted Katie and will stop at nothing until its campaign of terror has driven her to insanity.

In 1925, folks fainted upon seeing Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera. Nowadays, it's like you need two swimming pools of blood and a visit to Clive Barker's nightmares to keep viewers awake. This is why my hat goes off to Paranormal Activity, current darling of the horror scene, for doing what it does well and with little hoopla to speak of. It has but a few creaky doors and flickering lights to its name, though in the hands of director Oren Peli, these bumps in the night are more than enough to cast a disquieting spell over moviegoers. But when I speak of squeaks, grunts, and groans, that's really all you get; the movie leaves your mind to fill in the gaps, which I admired but will leave other thrill seekers dissatisfied. It's a slow burn, with a lot of set-up and only a few spurts of payoff, though the constant presence of dread works better than any jump scares could.

Though it's cruel to write off Paranormal Activity as a Blair Witch clone, there are similarities that can't be ignored. The scares are one thing, though foremost is the cinematography. The events are depicted entirely through Micah's omnipresent camera, in an example of the first-person perspective actually working well when applied to horror. Seeing the couple's plight unfold is freaky, though just as effective is how Peli uses this approach to include the human element. Much focus is put on the growing strain between Micah, who outrightly taunts his unseen aggressor, and Katie, a true believer in the otherworldly driven to tears more than once. There is some daffy behavior exhibited (after all, what's a horror movie about a bad decision or two), but it's to be expected. These are regular people with regular flaws, a refreshing alternative to characters who exist solely as walking scream factories.

Paramount's hype machine is working overtime promoting Paranormal Activity, though it is best seen with a crowd. Feeding off of others' reactions is half the fun, and don't be surprised to find yourself addressing the slightest noise with the utmost suspicion when you get home. A classic it is not, but Paranormal Activity still represents how creepy horror can be at its most direct.

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