Just over a week ago I had the distinct pleasure of being in the same cinema theatre as a bunch of school kids. The kids should’ve been 14 to 16 years old. The movie wasn’t good, but the kids were awful. Mobiles were switched on with the sound off so they could wave the display lights around, there was cheering and clapping whenever scenes were ending and boo sounds when the next scene would start. By the end, I’d gotten sympathy for a film I didn’t like, just because it had to compete against these brainless brutes. Of course, the kids were obliged to see the film, which made them automatically dislike it and noone was there (not that I could spot) to introduce them to the film. I don’t want you to see those two factors as an excuse for this hooliganesque behaviour, the total lack of respect is horrible, but let’s go back to our school years: weren’t obligatory trips always disappointing, a fact you’d persuaded yourself of before the cultural experience had begun? Surely, this would be different if I’d be in a room full of adult people (18+ is adult, after all) who’d gone to the cinema of their own free will and had chosen one particular film out of 18 possibilities…?
Wrong! No sooner had Paranormal Activity started or a young couple entered the room, who after being seated, constantly checked the time on their mobile’s display and took a lot of time reading and sending text messages to their friends. Apart from being agonized by this behaviour, I’m also curious: horror films, if powerful enough, manage to make these idiots stop their business and watch the screen in awe. This has happened before (see my Eden Lake review) and now it was time to see if Paranormal Activity could do the same.
These nincompoops had (of course) come to watch the film because of the hype around the film. Me… not so much. As soon as I’d heard of the hype, I tried my best to block all the information about this film, so I could watch it for what it was: a film. Not a hype. Let’s go back to The Blair Witch Project, released a decade ago, which had taken a lot of time to travel from the US to Europe and thus it was hardly able to stand up with all the weight of the hype on its shaky shoulders. Hence the European critics and moviegoers rated it less than the Americans.
But that was back in the twentieth century… right now, in this modern day and time, surely things are different…? Erm, not really, or so it appears: Paranormal Activity was actually completed in the year 2007, was shown at a couple of genre festivals, but had to wait till the autumn of 2009 before getting a global release. Most people aren’t aware of this, but so many movies are made every year only a handful of those will get a worldwide release. Subsequently, making a top list is a rather silly idea, because after all there’s a fat chance you won’t have even seen 1% of the world’s output. (By the way, stay tuned for my Best of 2009 list, appearing on these very pages next Monday.) Paranormal Activity tried to have a better chance by using modern-day equipment like YouTube, showing footage of people fainting during screenings. Whether doctored or not (probably yes), it did help to get the film distributed. What a shame then that the people who were aware of the allegedly scary movie ended up bitterly disappointed. You see, if you go to a film without some form of anticipation and you spend an enjoyable 90 minutes, you’ll like the film. If you go to a film that apparently has made people faint and you get to the end of the film still fully conscious, you’ll feel cheated. One of the films I often quote in this respect, is Silent Hill, which used scary music and visual effects to warn you something incredibly scary was ahead… but the frightening scenes never lived up to my expectations because of this. Likewise, Romero added so many effects to scare you in Land of the Dead that, by the time a zombie did pop up, you’d probably yawn.
I have the distinct pleasure to inform you that Paranormal Activity is a lot cleverer than that. It presents itself not as a film but as a documentary on what has happened to young couple Katie and Micah, who were living in a house which displayed some paranormal activity. Micah, very much a 21st century boy, had bought a camera and some equipment to record what happened at night, when the couple were sleeping. Thus, a fair amount of the film consists of fast-forwarded footage of two people sleeping until something happens. The clever part is that the fast-forwarding stops a bit before the actual proof of paranormal activity. Which means you suddenly start watching footage in real time, wait because nothing is happening and suddenly a light switches on. It’s scary in the way Japanese films are scary, because of built-up tension and atmosphere.
As the title suggests, the spirit or demon in the house manifests itself at night through paranormal activities, which does mean you don’t get to see the ghost, but you do get to hear sounds or lights switching on and off, doors opening and closing, etc. etc. One of the more displayed stills from the film (pictured next to this text) shows Katie suddenly getting up in the middle of the night and just standing next to the bed for an hour and a half, unaware of what she’s doing. Because this is shown in fast-forward motion, this is a lot scarier than a lot of gore, even though all you see is an immobile woman and a timer racing through the night. Never mind it distinctly echoes the climax to The Blair Witch Project.
In lesser news, Paranormal Activity also does the trick I genuinely hate about most horror films. A lot of horrors have either an overly scared girl (screaming her lungs out every twelve minutes) and a manly hero or a slightly cocky guy combined with a girl you could feel some sympathy for (apart from the fact she’s staying with this total pillock, what a stupid girl she must be). Despite Katie’s personal experience (she’s been assaulted by spirits before) and countless warnings, Micah insists on using the camera to record every moment of their lives, even if this might make the paranormal manifestations worse. Also, he doesn’t mind provoking the spirit in true Neanderthal fashion: me protecting girlfriend, me scare you away. To summarize, Micah really got on my nerves and I started praying to the demonic entity to kill Micah as soon as possible. Even though of course Micah’s video footage is what allowed this film to be compiled.
Speaking of which, the paranormal activity and the video footage made me think of a book, which even used the same font as Paranormal Activity: the rather excellent House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. I can’t be certain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Oren Peli, writer and director of Paranormal Activity, has read the book. Of course, by referencing House of Leaves and The Blair Witch Project (voluntarily or accidently), you do place your films near other media that may well banish you into their shadow. Paranormal Activity isn’t a match to these two, even if Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat do an excellent job. Especially Katie deserves a lot of credit, being the centerpiece of the film and showing a young woman on the verge of breaking down after having been the target of paranormal activities for a couple of years. In an attempt to look like genuine footage, the film doesn’t have credits. It mainly mentions the names of Katie and Micah at the beginning of the film (and by thanking the couple’s families for allowing Peli to use the footage, you know things won’t end good). As if you were watching an actual documentary. And at the very end, after the film’s climax, the film ends with a black screen telling you this was directed by Oren Peli and that’s it. The lights go on and the audience remains in their seats, slowly coming to terms with the fact they’re in the real world again. Yes, the young couple I’d mentioned in the beginning of this review had lost their appetite to use their mobile phone, instead soaking up the antics of Micah and Katie. And, when the lights switched on and people just sat there, one woman behind me said: “I haven’t been so frightened by a film since Silent Hill.” Usually, I’ll be the last person out of the theatre, not moving from my seat until the credits have ended, but this time I was the first to leave.
Which only means one thing: Paranormal Activity uses a lot of atmosphere and tension rather than graphics. And since what you don’t see will scare you more, it is quite frightening. Had it not been for a couple of plot tactics to build up tension (Micah’s cockiness only aggravates the tense Katie even more) the film would’ve ended with an even better score. Now, it’ll have to be satisfied with 7.5/10.