Friday, September 7, 2012

Paranormal Activity (2009) review


Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat

Directed by Oren Peli

The Short Version: Extremely simplistic, yet infinitely effective movie that takes place in and around a spacious suburban home. This first film, currently the biggest moneymaking picture of all time (versus the amount of money spent on it), has so far garnered three sequels; two of which were equally successful. Peli's series rarely deviates from what he establishes here with the big house and characters with a video camera fetish. This creepy little film is unique among those that take place in a single location. It is just as successful at keeping the "found footage" sub genre alive and delivering some genuine scares as it was at making millions of dollars several years ago.

A young couple having recently moved into a new home encounter increasingly sinister visitations by a spiritual entity that is soon revealed to be a demonic presence. Capturing all the creepy altercations on camera, the paranormal activity increases becoming more and more dangerous with each passing night.

It was ten years after BLAIR WITCH that the equally popular box office hit PARANORMAL ACTIVITY haunted theaters across the nation. There had been numerous similar "Found Footage" flicks in between, but PA is among the most successful vs. the amount of money that was spent on it.

It's a modest, occasionally effective little spooker that I found mostly overrated the first time around. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) gave me goosebumps that Peli's movie failed to generate at the time. Seeing it again now, there's a great deal of tension built up leading to some great 'Boo' moments that are undeniably better when experienced on a big screen.

Even at home, it definitely has some scares, although the bulk of them come towards the end. Its ability to give the viewer the creeps comes mostly from what we don't see. It's this sort of fear and building of a tense momentum that seeing dollops of gore cannot replicate. Granted, there will always be those who find this sort of thing dull and boring because little is shown, but the sounds of ominous footsteps, creaking doors, and other random noises successfully supplant any gruesome visuals of many of today's horror pictures.

What's most interesting about this series is going back and seeing details that are touched upon and expanded in the so far two released sequels. The second takes place concurrent with this one and the third is a prequel that sets up what will happen to the characters headlining the first two films.

We are introduced to Micah and Katie, an engaged couple who have moved into a spacious suburban California home. As the film begins they have already experienced some minor unexplained encounters. With Micah's photographic persistence and inability to take things seriously, the encounters become more intense and scary as the film slowly creeps to its 'jump-out-of-your-seat' final shot.

Before that, we're treated to sights and sounds such as lights cutting on and off, swinging chandeliers, loud, ominous footsteps, a ouija board that sets itself on fire, and a scene where Katie inexplicably arises from bed and marches zombie-like downstairs and outside to sit in a swing. From here on out, we know things are not going to end up well for one or both of the lead cast members.

The relationship between Micah and Katie is also handled much better than the other two films. This is possibly due to director Peli stepping away as director and acting as producer. In this first entry, more time is spent with them particularly in the treatment of their escalating terror and how it erodes their relationship. The crumbling of the family unit of the other two films is mostly just skimmed over to make way for additional, and bigger examples of goosebumpery and the shocks that follow. The budgets would also increase with each succeeding film.

The increased budget does little to hinder the other entries, but the beyond modest amount spent on PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is a testament to its success in both what ended up on screen, and behind it. It's also a success in style over substance easily racking up skin-crawling moments of fear with little required aside from a loud noise, or a swinging chandelier. These movies are mostly stripped of cinematic peripheries and the lack of a substantial budget no doubt adds to the foreboding ambiance.

Movies like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY do not need an enormous amount of money, nor big names. What they do need are actors capable of pulling off naturalistic performances that rarely, if ever come off as a performance in a movie. We know these pictures aren't actual "found footage" of some horrific incident (although a good many were temporarily fooled by the BLAIR WITCH), but these films live or die on believing in the actors and their plight.

At its core, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY expertly utilizes the "Found Footage" aesthetic and integrates it within an AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979) template. Only in Peli's film, it will do the couple no good to "get out."

It took me two viewings to appreciate it, but it's definitely among the best of this genre. The succeeding films would do little to tamper with the formula aside from adding to the mix. By the end of the third picture, there's a hint of something more terrible than the murderous demon terrorizing the protagonists.
Prior to that, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY made the most of $15,000 to generate big scares on a small budget leading to its ultimate, gloomy finality seen in its now infamous last shot.

This review is representative of the Paramount DVD.

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