PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2009)

Paranormal Activity poster

All spoilers have been exorcised from this review

So this week, Paranormal Activity at last opens in UK theatres. Now this film has been knocking about since 2007, doing the festival circuit and generally getting rave reviews from all and sundry. For those of you who don’t know the story behind the release, it goes something like this…

First- time director Oren Peli shot the film in seven days and with a tiny $15,000 budget. It played several festivals and DVDs were sent out the studios. One of which found it’s way into the hands of Steven Spielberg who loved it and soon after a deal with Paramount was struck, initially to remake it with a larger budget. However audience response and positive reviews meant that ultimately the studio decided to ditch the remake scheme as release the original film in theatres albeit in a new tighter edit.

After a successful internet petition promotion, in which people could vote to have the movie shown in their own city, Paramount very quickly widened the original limited run to a full scale national release, just in time for Halloween. By this point a huge buzz was building about the film, and it thrashed Saw VI at the box office and is well under way to becoming the most profitable independent movie ever. But more importantly, Paranormal Activity has been hailed as the scariest film of all time, something the marketing department has made full use of for the promotion.

Now, roughly speaking movie goers who aren’t fans of the horror genre can be divided into two camps. Either they are the type avoid horror films like the plague as they just don’t see the fun or merit in watching a film that may frighten them, or they are on the “I don’t watch them because they aren’t just aren’t scary” side of the fence. Often those in column A seem to find any horror film they happen to see utterly terrifying and I suspect a certain number in column B are of this ilk and are just putting a brave face on the matter.

However, the column B folks are perhaps closer to the truth – in general most horror films just aren’t frightening enough. However it’s important to note that horror isn’t just about the scares; if I had to define the genre, I’d say horror is a journey into the darkness, exploring the stuff of nightmares -monsters, madness, and murder, phantoms and phobias. For me personally, what keeps drawing me back to horror is that the genre is the place where imagination most closely rubs shoulders with reality.

And although fear is an obvious target, a work of horror may also aim for comedy, suspense, thrills, action and even art – basically horror is a set of symbols and themes that may be employed in a variety of ways to tell a whole range of different types of stories.

But that said, there’s nothing more cherished by the genre fan as a work that genuinely delivers the fear. So when I heard jaded horror fanatics claiming that Paranormal Activity had gotten under their skin and actually terrified them, then obviously this was a must see picture. So much so that I discovered that the movie wouldn’t be getting a British release until the end of November and wanting a good frightening movie for Halloween night, I *ahem* “flew to America to see it” as they say on 35mm Heroes

Yes, yes I know – I’ll be on Santa’s naughty list this year and generally I much prefer to see a film in the theatre or a proper disc rather than some dodgy .avi file, but I did have reasons other than sheer impatience in this case. Firstly, I wanted to see this movie in the best possible setting and considering the buzz surrounding it, I didn’t want to see the movie in a packed theatre where there was every chance of having the screening ruined by idiots. And secondly, although I’d been dodging spoilers with the same fervour Michael Bay avoids sense and restraint, I had gleaned that although the differences in the cuts is minimal, many reviewers felt that the original festival version featured a far better ending and that the screener doing the rounds on the web was this cut.

Now having seen the movie and done a little more research, I can confirm that the changes to the theatrical cut are very minor and although the ending is different, the story remains essentially the same. And I’ll discuss these changes later on in the spoiler section of this review.

Paranormal Activity tells the story of a young couple, Micah and Katie, who are experiencing inexplicable events in their home. Katie believes the phenomena to be a haunting of some kind, whereas Micah is more sceptical. Hence he acquires a video camera and sets out to try and capture some of the odd happenings on film.

Yes, it’s yet another entry into the found footage genre, and in terms of its low budget origins, subject matter, and box office performance, there are obvious parallels with The Blair Witch Project. But, the good news for motion sickness sufferers is that Paranormal Activity isn’t another cavalcade of shaky cam. Although much of the movie features hand held shooting, there isn’t a whole lot of jiggling going on and many shots, including the main action sequences, have the camcorder mounted on a tripod.

But like its predecessor, Paranormal Activity has gained a reputation for being very frightening; a reputation which has grown from a genuine buzz about it from film fans to a huge outbreak of media hype. The tag line “scariest film ever!” is a great marketing shtick but overly hyperbolic. To begin with what actually inspires fear is a very subjective thing – for example if you’re petrified of spiders, then Arachnophobia, or even a cheesy romp like Eight Legged Freaks, will be your worst nightmare. Secondly although it would appear general audiences will flock to see a horror film that is allegedly actually scary for once, trumpeting as the most fear inducing film will serve as a kind of challenge to many viewers who are going to go in determined not to be scared. And this combative approach really isn’t the best way to appreciate a film of any kind – after all you can very easily pick any film to bits and voluntarily take yourself out of the movie. And like the Blair Witch Project before it, I can see the general public ultimately remembering Paranormal Activity as a triumph of hype rather than film making.

Equally those who think a good horror movie should follow the ghost train model and stick with the formula of tits, gore and jump scares will come out underwhelmed. For Paranormal Activity is a movie that slowly unfolds its plot, carefully crafting its characters and attempting to keep everything as realistic as possible. So if you favour good story telling and subtlety over flashy special effects and buckets of blood, there’s every chance that Paranormal Activity will work for you.

An opinion I’ve encountered a lot over the years, often from non-horror fans, is that the scariest things are those that could happen in real life. Now I’d dispute this, as there are plenty of horror movies that feature a real world menace yet no one is ever going to include them in a run-down of most terrifying cinema. One only as to look to the vast catalogue of slasher movies to prove this – many feature a psychopathic but human killer and inspire yawns and laughs rather than heart-stopping terror.

But there is a grain of truth in this view. A more accurate assessment would be that the scariest horrors are the ones that convince the audience that this could happen. For example, the reason The Exorcist was such a box office smash and has terrified countless viewers over the years isn’t because there is a widespread belief in demons but the way the plot is constucted. It’s structured in such as way that all the possible scientific explanations of Reagan’s affliction are scotched one by one, so that by the time the demonic possession takes full effect the audience fully believes that the satanic forces on screen are real.

For Paranormal Activity, director Oren Peli has stated that he extensively researched genuine cases of hauntings and strove to keep all the events on screen as believable as possible. And as some one who has long been fascinated by the paranormal, I can affirm that the events in the movie do reflect accurately the symptoms of a genuine haunting. Everyone knows some one who has a spooky tale to tell concerning strange noises in the night or sighting a mysterious apparition, and Paranormal Activity captures the same tone as such real world ghost stories.

Naturally the found footage enhances the film’s sense of reality. The fact that it was shot in a real house (actually Oren Peli’s own pad incidentally) literally brings the terror home to roost. However other than the recognisably real setting, what really sells the story is the characters. To begin with both Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherstone) looks like real people and their performances are very natural. When casting, Peli looked for actors that would have a good chemistry together and could improvise and this decision pays off in spades.

At its heart Paranormal Activity is as much about Micah and Katie’s relationship as it is about the haunting. Their relationship has real depth and we’ll return to look at this aspect of the film in the following spoiler section. The way the film is constructed, with most of the haunting taking place during the night-time sequences, we get to see the ongoing and cumulative effects of the phenomena on their lives. All to often movies are set in a parallel universe where the characters don’t have bills to pay, jobs to go to and are generally impervious to biological rules such as fatigue and shock. However in Paranormal Activity, Peli has thought through his scenario and shows us the real world effects of having ghosts haunting your home. This cycle of event then aftermath ups the credibility of their situation considerably, and each scene of daytime reflection and reaction in turn makes the next outbreak of weird phenomena all the more frightening.

As for the titular paranormal activity itself, Peli is definitely as student of the “suggest rather show” school. Which is not to say that we don’t see anything, the malevolent force plaguing Micah and Katie do plenty but we only really see the results of its actions. And the film is more effective for it; in a work such as this which is about out fears of the dark, of the unknown if you summon the effects wizards and wheel out the monstrous being in all its latex/CGI glory, the mystery and atmosphere tend to evaporate.

William F. Nolan, author of Logan’s Run, summed up the problems of the full show approach – you can carefully build up tension, fear and threat with an unknown horror but when you finally throw open the door and reveal your monster the audience reaction tends to be one of relief. For example, if you reveal that your terrifying monster is a ten foot tall bug, the audience will be saying to themselves “OK it’s a ten foot insect, I can deal with that - I was worried it was a hundred foot bug!”.

Paranormal Activity gets around this problem by showing us just enough. Although the haunter is never revealed, we see enough of its actions to establish it as a presence in these scenes. And the audience is given enough hints to imagine what it actually is themselves. In not parading spectres on the screen and keeping their manifestations to a believable level, the film generates a sense of unease and the uncanny and effectively turns the audience’s imaginations against themselves. The copious phantasmagoria conjured up in Poltergeist, impressive as it is, is unlikely to engender a fear of coffins rocketing through your floor whereas everyone is scared by the idea of hearing something moving about in your house in the dead of night.

All in all, Paranormal Activity is an impressive little chiller and a fine addition to the canon of cinematic ghost stories. It may have only been shot in a week, but the deft plotting and excellent performance clearly show that a considerable amount of time was spent thinking through the storyline and rehearse the cast. Rather than being constrained and restricted by the low budget, Peli has embraced these limitations and turned them to the film’s advantage.

But of course the big question is – did it scare me? And the simple answer is yes it bloody well did! By the last third, when the haunting is hitting full stride, my heart was going like a demented jackhammer and one moment in particularly literally had my hair standing on end. So is it the one of the scariest films of all time? For me, the most terrifying films as those that literally have given me a sleepless night, and although Paranormal Activity had conjured up a palpable sense of dread and spooked me profoundly, I did sleep like a log. However I must confess that before retiring I made damn sure all my doors and windows were firmly shut and removed anything that might possibly cast an ominous shadow from my bedroom – the last thing I wanted after watching this movie was to awaken in the dim watches of the night to glimpse a figure lurking in the corner of the room or find that my bedroom door had popped ajar.

So although Paranormal Activity has won a place in the hallowed handful of movies that kept me up all night, it definitely came close and I’ve no hesitation in placing it in the top ranks of the second division of frightening films. Of course, your experience may be somewhat different and I don’t doubt that for some of you it may well turn out to be the scariest film you ever see.

THE SPOILER SECTION



Right then, as if I hadn’t rambled enough on this movie – let’s hit the spoilers! And let’s start by returning to have a closer look at the character dynamics on show here. To begin with it worth noting that the Katie/Micah relationship is somewhat unusual for a movie couple. Frequently film couples are presented as one of the following - the happy, loving couple, the often rowing but still passionate pair, or the duo that really can’t stand the sight of each other for a second longer. But what we have here is none of the above and we don’t often see – the couple who have been together a while and are just ticking along – they do care about each other but the relationship is now comfortable rather than brimming with affection or resentment.

And this, I’m sure many of you will agree, is a far more accurate reflection of the reality of a long term relationship than any of the three stereotypes listed previously. And the fact that we can recognise our friends, family and even own relationships in Micah and Katie does give the film a firm grounding in reality that not only draws us in to the movie’s scenario but also makes the scares far more efficacious.

However what is most interesting is the way the dynamics of the relationship lay out throughout the movie. On a second viewing, the first thing that struck me was that from the outset there are signs that their relationship is already cracking before the pressures of the haunting take their toll. In the early scenes, it’s clear that the comfort factor has reached the point where Micah really isn’t paying Katie as much attention as he should anymore. In his mind, as he’s the breadwinner of the pair he’s fulfilling his responsibilities but he’s far more interested in his gadgets and toys than providing emotional support.

Like far too many men in long term relationships, he’s taking everything for granted. And despite being the one holding done a job while Katie is at college, he has in fact regressed and the dynamic of their relationship is more like mother and child than two adults in a romantic partnership. He’s more interested in messing about and demanding attention than noticing that Katie is disturbed and freaked out by the nocturnal goings on in their home.

Now often in ghost stories, we have at least one character who is there to play the sceptic, and in Paranormal Activity Micah fulfils this role. However on watching it again, there is a good deal more going on than providing rationalist expositions for what is happening. It’s not so much a case of the Micah character having a sceptical outlook, but more that he simply isn’t taking any of it seriously.

For example, when things start to escalate and he discovers that the camera has record some of the eerie occurrences, his reaction isn’t one of anger, confusion or denial as you’d expect from some one whose beliefs about the world have been challenged by convincing evidence. Oh no, Micah’s reaction is ‘Cool! Let’s get some more!’ and general pride and smugness that he captured it on tape. And despite now being convinced that there is something doing on, he still fails grasp that the situation is deeply upsetting Katie.

After the psychic’s visit, where Katie reveals that she has encountered similar weird happenings in her past, Micah gets somewhat stroppy (one of the few times he displays any kind of emotional reaction to the situation in the first half) that he didn’t know about it. But really, if he’d had his emotional radar turned on and had been acting like a supporting adult, then perhaps the subject would have come up sooner. He’s angry that Katie has kept details of her life from him, but surely this is an indicator of a wider lack of communication in their relationship. In a healthier relationship, Katie would have confessed that she’d experienced similar phenomena if they had properly discussed it when the current outbreak of spectral malarkey began. But more damning, one has to wonder why the subject hadn’t been broached before – considering they have been together for several years, and most couples end up discussing everything under the sun in the first stages of a relationship, one would have thought that Katie’s past experiences might have come in such ‘let’s share everything’ conversations.

And as the film progresses, another thing that struck me when watching again is the fact that the escalation of the haunting is down to Micah. At first, this simply because he ignores the psychic’s advice and starts playing with the entity, and later when he is finally starting to take the situation seriously, he outright antagonises it. Furthermore it’s also clear that Katie’s gradual emotional disintegration is solely due to the stress of the nightly events but the fact that she’s coping with it on her own as Micah is far too focused on his gadgets.

The situation builds not because the demon is becoming more powerful but because their relationship is crumbling – at first Micah is too busy arsing about to act responsibly, and later because when he does start to take matters seriously he goes down the macho route, calling out the demon and refusing to seek any outside help. Despite acting like a spoilt child for most of the film, when he does take responsibility he takes the worst possible route, becoming very controlling and aggressive and by the time he realises that playing the hard man isn’t going to cut it, it’s way too late.

The movie takes great pains to build into the narrative solid reasons for why they can’t simply leave. It’s repeated emphasised that the entity plaguing them is not a ghost but some demonic spirit, and it’s not the house that haunted but Katie herself. But what became very clear to me on a second viewing is that there was a solution - Katie needed to get Micah away from her…

Now, people in films, and particularly in horror movies, are prone to doing very dumb things. But in the case of Paranormal Activity, Micah is just being the usual idiot meathead who lands all concerned in jeopardy just to progress an ill thought out plot. Yes, he is stupid but this isn’t movie stupidity, its real world masculine emotional retardation. And it’s a testament to both Peli’s script, and as whole sections were improvised, the actors’ performances that there’s enough depth in their onscreen relationship to write a length relationship counsellors report on it. Indeed if The Blair Witch Project was a horror movie with a subtext about film making itself, then Paranormal Activity conceals a study of gender roles and relationship communication breakdowns.

Right so, onto the differences between the festival cut and the theatrical version as promised. There are two main changes, and the first see the version playing in cinemas ditching a scene where Micah shows Katie footage of an exorcism going badly wrong. And while this section provides the movie with it’s one moment of gore, on the whole I felt the movie as a whole benefited from losing it. Tonally, although the scene packs a punch, tonally it doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the film and the whole conceit of finding this footage smuggled out of the Vatican online strains the credibility of the scenario slightly.

However the other major change is less welcome. In the theatrical version, we have Katie and then Micah wandering off down the darkened hallway, and culminating in Micah’s body being hurled at the camera and closing with Katie walking towards us, her face demonically contorted. However in the original ending, instead of the corpse chucking, a bloody and seemingly entranced Katie, clutching a knife, wanders back into the bedroom, sits down and begins rocking. She continues rocking throughout the day until her friend calls in finds Micah’s body and alerts the police. The cops show up, only for Katie to snap out of her trance at the worst possible moment and get accidentally shot by the officers.

Now although the theatrical end does round off the film with a big jolt, I felt it was slightly out of place. It was a typical last scare, more suited to your usual Hollywood horror and something of a contrast to the realist narrative the rest of the film had so carefully constructed. Apart from the stylist differences between the two versions of the ending, the story’s conclusion remains the same, bar one detail. In the original, Katie is dead, but in the theatrical variant the last shot shows a title card that states that Micah was found dead but Katie has vanished. However besides being a better tonal match, the original ending also fits better with a little theory I cooked up.

Having seen Paranormal Activity several times now, I did occur to me that there could be an alternate explanation for the film’s haunting. An alternative interpretation of events could be that there is no demon, and the strange phenomena are actually a retroactive haunting. And what the hell is that I hear you cry. Well if an ordinary haunting is a recording or replay of past events leaking into the present, a retroactive haunting would be the echoes of a future event reaching back in time. Hence the figure Katie has seen standing at the end of her bed is herself, the footsteps in the hallway are those of her own future self. Or if you prefer, future Katie, the Katie who has killed Micah, is manifesting these things, and even throwing in some poltergeist style shenanigans to boot, to warn her past self.

And this does fit better with the original ending. Towards the end of the film, the occurrences one night are of the hallway light coming on by its self and we hear distorted voices. And this nicely echoes the arrival of the police in the first version of the ending. And as this ending has Katie dying, it meshes with the concept that practically Katie is haunting herself.

As stated before, the film makes clear that the phenomena will follow Katie wherever she goes, and this is an elaboration of the fact that supposed real life poltergeist activity is often centred on an individual, often a young woman. And one idea put forward by parapsychologists is that the spooky effects are not down to ghosts, demons or some other species of supernatural being but unconscious telekinesis on the part of the individual. So therefore, perhaps the events in Paranormal Activity are being generated by Katie herself. And to expand into a third interpretation, could it be that the haunting is her unconscious resentment of Micah manifesting, undermining her rational mind to the point where she can act on her subconscious impulse and the murder the insensitive slob? Certainly this third approach does fit well with the relationship subtext we have already discussed.

Now I’m not saying that either of these theories are the real story behind the haunting but it’s certainly fun to watch it with these alternative perspectives. The fact that there isn’t the usual neat unlocking of the story behind the haunting and that the movie’s events are open to such alternative interpretation is proof of the quality of the project. Whether Oren Peli can repeat this feat remains to be seen, but he if continues to develop future projects with the same level of thought, he could well become a directorial force to be reckoned with.

Paranormal Activity 2 review

Paranormal Activity 3 review


JIM MOON, 27th November 2009


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