Paranormal Activity
Reviewed in October 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Oren Peli. Cast: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Michael Bayouth, Ashley Palmer. Screenplay: Oren Peli.

Photo © 2009 Paramount Pictures/Blumhouse Productions
At some recent moment, and probably still today, the two most germane questions to ask about Paranormal Activity were whether it has the right hooks to attract a creative and a fiscal investment from some deep-pocketed studio benefactor, and whether or not it is as frightening as hell. Beyond those tests, each very practical in its own way, the film has not exactly been built to last. At times you can imagine Oren Peli, the writer, director, and diabolical orchestrator, asking in his fruitiest, huskiest Deborah Kerr cadence, "Years from now when you talk about this—and you will—be kind." But the preconditions for talking about Paranormal Activity in future years arrive with restrictions: we'll either be poking around the early career of a scare-meister who hopefully has more to show us, or we'll be citing the film as a savvy avatar of changing distribution tactics, or we'll be gasping to each other after someone else's horror movie, "Man, I haven't been this terrified at the movies since that woman in Paranormal Activity stuck her leg over the side of the bed."

Which is to say, we will not talk about Paranormal Activity years from now, kindly or otherwise, as an object lesson in screenwriting or character construction. It is, by now, a truth universally acknowledged that shockeroo cinema dependent upon the increasingly hoary device of found video footage must be in want of at least one character who can't or won't put down the camera, plus at least one character who can't stop bellyaching about how loveless and heedless and irritating it is to be filmed at every second amid breaking catastrophes. When your film is basically a two-hander, these roles arrive pre-established, and as per the usual gendered archetypes, it's the guy who can't stop shooting and the gal who wishes he'd give it a rest. (Sadly, Heather Donahue, it appears you lived, and surely died, for nothing.) Even by the standards of obnoxiously dogged documentarians, and let's recall that last year's otherwise kicky Cloverfield set that bar tremendously high, Paranormal's Micah Sloat pushes the envelope to newfound limits of off-putting insensitivity. It isn't just that his live-in girlfriend Katie Featherston—played, like Micah, by an unbilled actor endowing the character with her own name—has been menaced periodically across her life by an invisible but palpable maleficence, and that she wishes Micah would follow her own suggestions about how to placate this entity now that it has resurfaced in her life after eight or nine years of leaving her alone. It isn't just that Micah insists on toting his massive camera around the house and shouting the most thuggish, misplaced invitations to trouble since George W. Bush gingerly requested Iraq to "bring it on." Worst of all is that Katie gets bamboozled into her own tarpit of repetitious scenes ("Please stop," "Please don't," "Please," she begs) as Micah thumps his chest and dares the malign spirit to furnish this ostentatiously low-fi, crudely "formalist" experiment with a story, goddammit! To make something really happen! Do your worst, Beelzebub! It'll help us fill the running time!

But I'm risking a tone that's as bullish and cynical as Micah's forever is, even when the only other important character, a psychic who looks like an Applied Linguistics professor, drops in to verify with pragmatic dispatch that Katie and Micah's house is unmistakably gripped not by a ghost, the walking spirit of a deceased person, who can therefore be characterized, communicated with, and potentially placated like a person, but rather by a demon, a barely conceivable being of carnivorous ill will and implacable prerogatives to claim and ruin its victim. In this way and others, the basic demonology that Paranormal Activity imparts, to include the unperturable certainty of the demon's following wherever its quarry might go (and thus undercutting the prey's impulse to flee), doubles as a ratification of the film's low-budget, high-ingenuity, single-location approach to its macabre tale. Not for Katie and Micah to tramp around the Maryland woods, bedeviled by twig-snaps and totems and kidnappings that exploit its audience's terror of being irretrievably lost in the middle of nowhere. Paranormal Activity worms its way into a sibling terror, in many ways more insinuating and disruptive, of finding oneself immovably at home, while everything that makes a house a "home" gets burned away by sour breaths, voiceless whispers, and pounding sounds in the dead of night, wracking upward from the first floor, when absolutely no one is down there.

Who's got time for a little bit of marked authorial embodiment? Well, here you go: the goose-flesh has pricked up on my arms and back, and I have looked over my shoulder four times since starting the last paragraph. In fact, I just did it again. Paranormal Activity has the universally craved but preciously rare knack among modern horror movies of seeping into the skin and the cerebellum. Its structuring device, soon to become famous if it isn't already, derives from Micah's headstrong plan of mounting a stationary camera and activating a high-sensitivity microphone in their bedroom while they sleep, so that Katie's nagging sense that something inchoate but awful is visiting her at night might be confirmed by empirical evidence. (There went all the hair in my head, rising from all my follicles like dough in the oven.) Empirical evidence they quickly get, and honestly, any moderately inspired squad of amateurs could accurately guess the increments by which their first few nights grow more and more disconcerting. Objects move inexplicably around the house. Creaks are heard on the wooden staircase just barely offscreen. Doors visibly swing in the night without any hint of a draft.

The predictability of these devices turns out not to qualify their confrontational force on screen, in part because Paramount's ingenious marketing strategy of exhibiting this low-overhead film exclusively in midnight showings and letting it "sell itself" through a paranoid circulation of ardent but hazy word of mouth has engineered a marvelous social contract among Paranormal Activity's audiences: we should all be home in bed, like the characters in the movie, but the ghoulish fate of those characters, scaring us to distraction, nonetheless scares us away from, of all things, packing up and going home to bed. Certainly the unusual circumstances of our attendance—I showed up feeling like Betty and Rita, traipsing off to Club Silencio with no clear idea of why I was taking myself there—fosters our willingness, our demand to be stimulated, provoked, even collectively upset. How well Paranormal Activity will work on home formats I cannot imagine, and though Paramount would never allow it, I'd suggest a Jeanne Dielman move and prohibit it from any home-exhibition format whatsoever for at least 30 years.

Furthermore, however unmistakably it lacks the governing intelligence and political rigors of a piece like Haneke's Caché, Paranormal Activity deftly plumbs the humble platform of video-recording for its own uncanny potentials. Granted, the movie is less inspired or original than The Blair Witch Project in its conjuring of offscreen spaces and forces, potent as these remain in the newer film, and it suffers by moving some of the occult "backstory" that Blair Witch savvily dispatched at the outset into the third quarter of the film, and barely seeming sure of why it's doing this. Two awkwardly recruited props, one from Katie's past and one from a harebrained scheme of Micah's, yield momentarily spooky but vapid effects, and even they handily supersede some lurking contrivances that should have been easy to avoid. (Example: What are this long-in-the-tooth "college student" and her day-trading boyfriend doing with a two-story, three-bedroom house?) I can concede all of that, especially the morning after, but acknowledge, too, that these demerits are mostly powerless to slake the effect of being locked into a static visual perspective that I was soon, out of frayed nerves, begging to escape, though I was even more scared to adopt any other available option of where the film's perspective might shift.

The coup de grâce of Peli's film, for which Blair Witch has no real equivalent I can recall, is that its seemingly uncut, bargain-basement video footage keeps encompassing sinister effects that don't seem plausible within the confines of the filmmakers' methods or wallets. It's bad enough when doors start slamming, footprints appearing, and bedsheets turning themselves backward with no onscreen agent to prompt them, and it doesn't matter a whit that some part of your brain recognizes that the static, adumbrated shots on which Paranormal Activity has been constructed furnish an ideal context for invisible cuts, disguised fishing lines, whatever. The images make their own case, across a broad range of registers from ingenious simplicity to jaw-dropping inexplicability. Katie Featherston anchors one of the former effects just by standing in place, while the digital timer at the lower-right corner of the image suddenly fast-forwards, testifying that she stood that way, asleep, or not, for hours. (The skin on my chest is contracting as I type.) She is also the focal point of the most dastardly, sense-defying gambit in the film, which I wouldn't dream of divulging. But it has to do with that leg.

So what, then, that Paranormal Activity hasn't an idea in its analog head, and that it only halfway capitalizes on Micah's burgeoning arrogance and Katie's petrified candor as a possible neurotic template for the ghastly projections that clench their teeth around this house. The altered ending, rumored to have been a Spielberg suggestion, has been derided as a breach in the film's formal integrity, and it certainly feels money-minded in design and (literal) impact. Still, I can't say it rings falsely with other notes that have sounded in the script, and after the witty, unceremonious elimination of one deus ex machina that the audience starts to expect, even the halting story sense of Paranormal Activity had got me, well in advance of the conclusion, back where the filmmakers presumably wanted me. Which was: cowering in my seat, telepathically apologizing to my neighbor for clutching the entire armrest, and savoring a scare machine that bears the stamp of its quick, modest origins but swans right over the needless hurdles it sets in its own way. For 99 minutes, it owns, it possesses the screen and all of the people watching it. Grade: B

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