Filmed in one week for under $15,000, Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity has become a marketing sensation for a strange reason: a lack of conventional studio marketing. Solid word of mouth and an online campaign urging people to demand the film play in their city convinced Paramount Pictures to give the movie a wide release tomorrow (October 16th). I'll admit: the main reason I saw this in a theater was to see what all the buzz was about. Nicely played, marketing campaign - touche.
A brief history of the project: first-time untrained filmmaker Oren Peli wrote and directed the film, which screened for the first time at the Screamfest Horror Film Festival in 2007 and was eventually picked up by Dreamworks and shown to Steven Spielberg. Spielberg reportedly encountered some strange events while watching the film - the doors in his house locked by themselves and he had to call a locksmith to get out. He returned the film to his company sealed in a garbage bag, claiming it was "haunted," but liked the movie enough to be an executive producer for it. Obviously that story has to be taken with a grain of salt considering Spielberg's involvement, and has been considered by many (myself included) to be merely an attempt to drum up some more publicity for the movie.
Executives at Paramount planned for Peli to direct a remake with more established actors and a bigger budget, but when they screened the film for some potential screenwriters, a strange thing happened: people started leaving the theater while the movie was still playing. The execs thought they had a dud on their hands, but later discovered that people were leaving because they were legitimately too afraid to keep watching. At this point, they scrapped the idea of a remake and decided to release Peli's original film.
Writer/Director: Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat
Add this film to the ranks of the recent "shoot from a home video camera" trend revitalized by Cloverfield, the Spanish film [Rec], and its American remake, Quarantine. Paranormal Activity surrounds Katie and Micah, a couple living together in a large house. Off and on since Katie was eight years old, she's had mysterious things happen to her at night, wherever she was - she moved twice, but the entity always follows her. Too bad she didn't mention this to her boyfriend of three years, Micah, when they recently decided to move in together. Now that they're in this big house, Micah is determined to record as much of the paranormal activity as possible to figure out once and for all who or what is bothering Katie. The movie goes to extreme lengths to convince you you're watching real footage, adding a brief text message thanking the San Diego Police Department before the film starts and electing to avoid opening and ending credits entirely.
The movie uses two main methods of providing tension. The most effective is setting the camera on a tripod every night to watch the couple sleep and document the frightening things that happen. The camera is equipped with a wide angle lens so we can see not only the couple in their bed, but through their (inexplicably) open bedroom door, the hallway outside and the stairs that lead up to the second floor. Timecode runs across the bottom of the screen in these "night" segments, fast forwarding until something worthwhile happens. This provides an uneasy feeling for the audience; every time the film transitions to one of these segments, we know something is going to happen, so it heightens our senses and puts us on edge. The second method occurs when the couple is awakened at night. Micah repeatedly grabs the camera from the tripod and ventures out into the dark house, refusing (again, inexplicably) to turn on the lights to the whole house. Instead, he slowly creeps around corners, building tension for the audience as we brace ourselves for what might be around every turn.
The entire film takes place at the couple's house, and Peli did a great job of making the house a character of its own. Early in the film, we see just enough of the house to feel comfortable in the space, but there are some unexplored areas (featured later in the movie) where the "unknown" aspect of the house's layout is just as big of a factor as what might be found inside it. There was plenty of opportunity for cheap scares here, but I'm glad they decided to show some restraint and not rely on jump scares too much.
Next Two Paragraphs Only - Spoilers for Paranormal Activity
I get that Micah is supposed to be your typical "tough guy" and he wants to take care of the situation himself. I buy that. But when a Ouija board catches fire, or you see hoof prints in your bedroom, I think trash talking the spirit in your house may be a little overkill. What does he think that is accomplishing? Also, after all this evidence is presented to him, why wouldn't he agree to call the demonologist? How could that possibly hurt the situation? He's freakin' reading stories about demons and seems to believe in them, yet he refuses help from a specialist. Needless to say, I would have gotten the heck out of Dodge (with the girl in tow - I obviously wouldn't leave her behind).
There's one more thing I want to discuss before we get back to the part where people who haven't seen it yet can read along again. That ending was pretty nuts, huh? I think it was actually my least favorite part of the whole thing, but that's just because I thought it was a little anticlimactic. I thought it would have been better if Katie had just returned upstairs by herself and crawled into bed, implying Micah's murder on the ground floor below. Anyway - according to Wikipedia, Spielberg himself suggested the ending take its current form; apparently in previous screenings there were variations that sounded more interesting than what we actually saw. Want to hear them? Sure you do. The first is pretty much what I wanted, with Katie returning upstairs and sitting in a catatonic state by the bed, alone. The last alternate ending depicted Katie returning with a knife and slitting her own throat in front of the camera. How insane would that have been? I wish they had the balls to stick with that ending.
The similarities between Paranormal Activity and Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell are striking. Both feature cursed women with skeptical boyfriends, both feature conversations with psychics, and the list goes on. In fact, I consider Paranormal essentially a documentary version of Drag Me To Hell. If you've seen both films, you'll easily recognize the correlation.
One of the things that took me out of the movie is that it uses a very small music score to ratchet up the suspense in scary situations. The great thing about Quarantine was that it didn't need to rely on music at all - the frightening aspect was being completely immersed in the same world that the characters inhabited, hearing every small noise that they heard and reacting as they would. Adding music, however slight, kills the whole vibe of what they were trying to do with this film. I found it semi-distracting and pretty unnecessary.
The last point I want to bring up: actress Katie Featherston reminded me a lot of Jenna Fischer's Pam Beesly (now Halpert!) from TV's "The Office." Perhaps it was that she looks like a normal person instead of the ditzy Abercrombie models that are featured so heavily in today's horror flicks, and perhaps it was because the movie was shot in documentary style, but something in me made that connection. To everyone else who has seen this: did anybody else get that vibe?
If you're going to see this movie, I would recommend checking it out in a packed theater. Like all good horror movies, this is a societal event and needs to be experienced in the company of others. That said, the movie would also be pretty damn effective if you watch it in the darkness of your own home with a few friends; after they leave, you'll be jumping at every creak in the floorboards for the rest of the night. If you're a traditional horror fan, you might be a little disappointed with Paranormal Activity, since nothing truly scary happens until the last half hour or so. But if you're more of a casual genre fan looking for a good time, I think this film will provide that for you. Until next time...