Down in the Dark
Ah, how the public's taste for horror has changed over the years. 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, indie 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.
The bare-bones story of Paranormal Activity 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 followed 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 starts to increase. 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 insane.
Though it's cruel to write off Paranormal Activity as a Blair Witch clone, there are similarities which can't be ignored. Foremost, there's the cinematography, as the events are depicted entirely through Micah's omnipresent camera. The first-person perspective has met with mixed results when applied to horror, but it works here on a couple of levels. Seeing the scares unfold is a no-brainer, though just as effective is how Peli includes the human element. Much focus falls on the growing strain between Micah, who taunts his unseen aggressor, and Katie, a true believer in the otherworldly driven to tears more than once. The two exhibit some daffy behavior (after all, what's a horror movie without 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.
Also, just as Blair Witch was received in its day, Paranormal Activity has been hyped as a veritable horror sensation. I'm always glad to see small productions get their due, but viewers will expect the world, when it delivers a province at best. While the film can get unsettling, be mindful of how little you actually see. When I talk of squeaks, grunts, and groans, that's really all you get; the movie leaves your mind to fill in the gaps, which I admire (as I did with Blair Witch) but will leave other thrill seekers dissatisfied. The film is a slow burn too, instituting a lot of set-up and only a few spurts of payoff. This results in some slow patches of putzing around, but it also helps those sudden outbursts feel all the more unexpected. What is strange, though, involves how the film resists its theatrical urges until the very end, where its final note puts an unfortunate dent in its personalized mystique.
As overworked as Paramount's hype machine is, Paranormal Activity is best seen with a crowd. Feeding off others' reactions makes for half the fun, and don't be surprised to find yourself addressing the slightest noise with the utmost suspicion when you get home. Although not a classic, Paranormal Activity still represents how creepy horror can be at its most direct.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated "R" for language.)