Friday, October 30, 2009

Paranormal Activity, or Your Hype’s Scarier than Your Movie

What are they scared of?  NOTHING. Have you seen the commercials for Paranormal Activity? If you have, you might be under the impression that it’s a scary movie. In fact, this spot is actually titled “Scariest Movie.” These ads have been crafted to make you believe that theaters of people shrieked and screamed as they watched this ghastly thriller by first-time director Oren Peli.

You’ve been lied to. This movie isn’t scary. The activity involved is light on the para and heavy on the normal.

Paranormal Activity isn’t just normal. It’s abnormally bad.

More impressive than the movie itself is the improbable amount of prerelease hype. Paranormal Activity tore through the 2007 Screamfest Horror Film Festival and continued on to the Slamdance Film Festival. Then someone at DreamWorks gave it to Steven Spielberg, who nearly crapped his pants when the apparently haunted DVD locked his bedroom doors. He greenlit a remake, but when the original caused people to flee the theater in terror he decided to just release the thing as is. It was then given a scattered, small release, and Peli told fans of the film to sign an online petition of sorts campaigning for a wider release. I haven’t seen such outlandish scary movie marketing since The Blair Witch Project spawned a fake documentary on the SciFi (now SyFy) Channel.

The Blair Witch Project is a great place to begin a discussion of Paranormal Activity. The latter was made on a pittance compared to Blair Witch. Paranormal Activity was shot in a week, in the director’s home. Like Blair Witch, it employs a Found Film device: the movie is supposed to be footage discovered after a young couple attempts to document the supernatural events occurring in their home. Like Blair Witch, the script is largely improvised, which (like Blair Witch) leads to more-than-occasional ruts in the dialogue as the actors flounder, repeating themselves and running the conflict into the ground.

Unlike Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity lacks actual moments of terror. Persuaded by the commercials, I saw this movie on a Sunday afternoon, giving myself plenty of daylight to recover from what would surely be a frightening experience. The lights dimmed on a theater at 30% capacity. After the trailers wrapped up, there was no title screen. No Paramount logo. Just a title slate thanking the families of Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) for allowing the footage to be aired. 86 minutes later, after a lackluster conclusion and a lack of a credit roll, the same 30% blankly started at one another in the low light. Not one of us had made a peep. I had briefly uttered a concerned “Oh…” during what was arguably the most compelling part of the film (it lasted about thirty seconds). We filed out, the wind dragged sluggishly from our sails.

And that’s Paranormal Activity’s largest problem: it’s sluggish. The couple, Kate and Micah, suspect they’re being haunted. So Micah picks up a camera to record the spirit’s nightly activity. Each night, a different underwhelming event transpires. A door moves of its own accord. Lights go on and off. Footsteps sound on the staircase. It’s all rather…inactive. Until later on, when the demon (they’ve discovered it’s a demon now, apparently) kicks it into high gear by – wait for it – fluttering their bed sheets.

Taken as a strict montage of eerie occurrences, this might have unsettled me. It speaks to an old fear, that “Wait, did I just hear something?” feeling that’s been with us since the Stone Age. As the nights go on, stranger things transpire. Katie sleepwalks, ends up outside on the patio at three in the morning, with no explanation. In context, it could be mildly disturbing. But it’s not.

Each night is bookended by a day. And the days get progressively mind-numbing as the couple bickers over how to handle the demon. Should Micah keep recording? Why has this thing been following Katie all her life? These days often devolve into cyclical arguments with no resolution. Boring bridges to get us to the next boring night. “Let’s leave.” “We can’t, it will follow us.” “Let’s GO.” “I don’t feel like it.” It sounds like Beckett, but, trust me, this kind of boring has no meaning.

Much has been made of the film’s Less Is More aesthetic for its willingness to strip away horror movie clichés and replace them with simple moments of suspense. It’s a noble goal, but director Peli is not up to the task. The movie clips along at the speed of a glacier, the lackluster day scenes dissolving any potential energy hiding in the evening hauntings. A stronger, more coherent script might have summoned forth the latent themes of domestic fear or further explored how the threat of home invasion can tear a relationship asunder. Peli’s cinematography attempts to exploit the darkness by using the static bedroom shot to play a game of “Guess the Scare” with the audience. Midway through, I got tired of guessing what minutiae in the room would act up next. I wanted to be shocked. Instead, I was just sitting in the dark.

For such a dim film, there were a few bright spots. The scenes involving the psychic (earnestly played by Mark Fredrichs) were often comedic. When he informs them that the demon thrives on negative energy, Micah quips to Katie, “We should stop inviting your mom over.” Arriving later when the two are despairing about the malevolent ghost, the psychic balks. “I’m making things worse. I should leave.” I couldn’t help but laugh at how utterly screwed this unlikable couple was.

Paranormal Activity ends with one mildly surprising Boo! moment. If you were expecting anything more, I suggest you rewatch The Blair Witch Project. It should scratch that horror verité itch without frustrating the hell out of you. Or you can just watch the commercials. Their marketing success is what’s truly scary.