Paranormal Activity (2007/2009) dir. Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat and Mark Fredrichs
By Greg Klymkiw
Any and all clichés one could utilize to describe the overall effect of this magnificently directed, utterly extraordinary and near-perfect no-budget horror movie would be apt – it’s heart-stopping, nerve-jangling and pulse-pounding. More than suitable descriptions, one and all, but in some ways a disservice to use because “Paranormal Activity” is such an exquisitely rendered creep-fest that any superlatives it deserves (clichéd or not), will ultimately pale in comparison to the experience of bearing witness to what unfolds. There is also the fear that as much as one wants people to see it, any overwrought praise has the ability to set up the sort of high expectations that no picture could ever live up to.
Well, let it be said that I had absolutely NO expectations.
As per usual, I managed, in advance of seeing the picture, to avoid reading all reviews. No puff pieces for this fella, either, since I can’t stomach reading them anyway. I partook of no trailers, nor any of the usual hype used to hawk movies. All I knew going in was the title. Knowing even that, I assumed it would be a horror movie, and, being a rabid fan of the likes of late-night radio stars Art Bell and George Noory of “Coast-to-Coast” fame, I furthermore suspected the picture would be dealing with one of my favourite subjects in horror movies – paranormal activities, of course; those forces in the universe that are received with as much scepticism as profound belief.
With no expectations or knowledge, I sat back and let it happen.
And happen, it most certainly did.
On the surface, the picture falls into the shaky-video-cam thriller mockumentary tradition of “The Blair Witch Project”, “Cloverfield” and “Quarantine”. It blows all of them into near oblivion – not because there’s anything profoundly original about “Paranormal Activity” (well. there is, actually - more on this later), but because it’s endowed with the sort of relentless, obsessive quality one might find in the very best horror thrillers and feels less machine-tooled than the aforementioned.
It’s also just plain scary - something that I never really felt about the mock thrills within the trio cited above; due, I suspect, to the feeling that I could feel the hands of the filmmakers at work just a little too obviously.
“Paranormal Activity” elicits the sort of unexpected explosions of fear-induced fecal matter into my undies that all great horror films wrench out of you because writer-director Oren Peli creates mounting dread by avoiding so many of the trademarks of the shaky-cam genre. Number one, it is not overwrought – at least not all the way through and ONLY when it needs to be. Secondly, the performances are fresh and naturalistic. The attractive leads seem like any normal young couple flung into a situation that is clearly out of their realm of experience. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the shaky-cam is actually not all that shaky. In fact, it’s mostly very, very still. Locked off in tableau for a good portion of the picture, the camera is a silent witness to some of the most horrifying images I have yet to experience (which takes some doing since about 1/3 of the over 30,000 titles I've seen in my life are affiliated with genres devoted to terror). There’s no blood – not too much, anyway: there’s no elaborate, over-the-top digital effects and there are no cheap shocks (well…maybe just a few, but – Goddamn! – if they aren’t effective).
While we are presented with the terror in the familiar stillness and darkness of night, the manner in which many of the scares are delivered are rooted in an approach that is less common in this age of torture pornography masquerading as horror. And it is the stillnes that resonates most profoundly in the picture. This is the stuff of most of the nightmares that haunt us.
It is a terror of the creepiest kind and as such, comes far closer to the work of Val Lewton and/or William Friedkin by way of Jim McBride’s legendary mockumentary “David Holzman’s Diary”.
Lewton was the legendary producer and head of the RKO horror unit in the 40s where he created a series of brilliant works like “The Cat People”, “I Walked With A Zombie” and a handful of other creepy pictures that not only revolutionized how horror films were made, but still work in a current context - mainly for their adherence to finding terror in ordinary, (and mostly) contemporary situations touched by some form of psychic or psychological malevolence. As well, Lewton's pictures discovered utter horror in what is NOT seen – stillness, quiet, shadow, darkness and obsession. These are the real monsters in Lewton’s work. “Paranormal Activity” is replete with these attributes.
Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” battered us with the most horrendous, extreme images that still shock to this very day – yet the reason they shock is that they are framed in the clinical detail of how Regan, the devil-possessed child, is run through a battery of painful and intrusive tests and, most importantly, how the horror is rooted in the lives and locale of normal people. “Paranormal Activity” has a clinical precision in the obsessive detailing of every moment of the lives of the central figures and it is terrifying.
If the abovementioned were then filtered through the birthplace of the mockumentary, Jim McBride’s 1967 “David Holzman’s Diary”, an obsessively grainy vérité look at the psychological disintegration of a man who uses a camera to chart his descent into madness, one would come very close to experiencing the brilliant, visceral terror of “Paranormal Activity”.
Following 20 days in the lives of a seemingly normal man and woman trying to videotape and live with the horrible entities threatening the woman’s sanity and eventually, both their lives, “Paranormal Activity” draws from well-honoured cinematic traditions and manages to go its own unique way. In fact, it is the normal people and locales in this picture that make us squirm whenever night falls and the camera just sits there – a quiet observer of the mounting horror. These are normal people in an extraordinary situation who are recording the strange events in their lives.
“Paranormal Activity” is a clever variation on pinching oneself to confirm that either there is nothing to worry about or, in the worst case, that it’s not a dream. And if it’s not a dream, the only solace our characters (and we, the audience) can take is that the central figures (and by extension, us) are not completely out of our minds. Unfortunately, what befalls the two main characters is so terrifying that insanity, or death would be better than having to live yet another night – face to face with evil incarnate.
This is a movie that demands being experienced on a big screen. It takes the home movie aesthetic and swallows us whole. The very essence of a big-screen experience is what envelopes and virtually consumes us. Every small, subtle and horrific detail explodes in our faces with the kind of power and force that big-screen features are meant to do. Subsequent small screen viewings will also prove interesting, especially when the alternate “first version” (without the reworked and decidedly kick-ass “theatrical” conclusion) is also watched – but only AFTER seeing it theatrically.
“Paranormal Activity” is a corker of a horror film. Another cliché for your edification, but one that is perfectly appropriate. One leaves the theatre drained, quiet, and alternately contemplative and stunned.
It’s the magic of movies, and for that, I am most grateful.