I've always considered incidents of haunting, demonic possession and paranormal phenomenon, like I do most things born of childish "fear-think" - ghosts, UFOs, religion, Bigfoot, Jesus, ESP, the Loch Ness monster, free market libertarianism and Cal Thomas columns - as byproducts of the overactive imaginations of the ignorant and histrionic.
After all, I cynically grew up in the age of Scooby-Doo 1.0, where all instances of the otherwordly were rationally explained away by corrupt landowners swindling the locals with strong arm ghost story tactics and shady real estate deals. Ain't no such thing as the devil except in the form of deregulated capitalism.
But the issue we are here to discuss is the scariness of the recent low budget offering produced, cast, edited, filmed, written and directed by Oren Peli named Paranormal Activity. Now, before we start lauding Mr. Peli as the next grand auteur of the American cinema let us keep in mind that this movie is little more than a Blair Witch Project copycat set in a single haunted house with two amateur actors and a budget about as big as one of my internet writing gigs. Which is to say, the price of a lunch at Subway.
This is not to say that the film is without merit. It does contain moments of genuine creepiness. And eeriness is about the best adults can hope for when duped into watching a horror film these days. I simply don't get "scared" at the movies anymore. Unless I see "Ben Stiller" in the opening credits.
Despite this inability to lose my grounded, skeptical perspective at the theater, Paranormal Activity makes a respectable showing. Respectable in the way that a hurried, weekend "film throwdown" feature might be produced - with a semi-cute coed from the dorm (My those extra ten lbs. sure do show up on camera!) and your douchebag friend with his parent's Sony handheld (insisting he can act) playing the leads. This rushed-together bit of guerilla filmmaking and laptop editing results in all the precision of a drunken Croatian wedding video. But, The Blair Witch Project was scary and made a lot of money, right? So, what the hell? Let's take this thing out for a spin.
And quite a nice spin indeed for Peli as the promotion for his $15,000 effort went viral, piqued the interest of Steven Spielberg and was picked up by Paramount for $300,000. It has since gone over the $100 million mark, making it one of the most profitable films of all time. And to that fact one must tip his hat to Peli and politely whisper in his ear, "You lucky fucking son-of-a-bitch. The sun sure must shine out your ass, doesn't it, Ringo?".
Bitterness aside, I wouldn't be doing my job as a critic if I didn't applaud what works in the film. The miniscule budget is the first plus. With its bare bones technique of an often static video camera, the supernatural occurrences are given a universal/personal feel of disturbing possibility. The film also succeeds in its deliberate pacing. The lack of FX and constant "gotchas" seen in larger scare flicks make the actual (and infrequent) shocks here pop. And the small bits of creepiness (the movement and shattering of objects) are accented well with the audience's complicit voyeurism in watching people asleep in their bed when they are most vulnerable to the whims of others.
I also wouldn't be doing my job as a fussy prick and film snob if I didn't point out that the believability factor of all this nonsense, mostly seen in the ridiculous behaviors (and weak improvisational abilities) of the leads, renders it often laughable and groan inducing. While not horrible performances, I began to fear more the likelihood that the spirit of Stanislavski would be awakened to smite Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston rather than the tepid demon unleashed in the film. What the fuck kind of name is Micah Sloat anyway? Sounds like a sludge runoff in Haifa.
Their decision arc reminded me of that Eddie Murphy bit regarding the difference between white and black people in reacting to a situation similar to Poltergeist or The Amityville Horror. Murphy joked that white folk would stand pat and try to discover the source of the weirdness - where black folk, upon hearing the first hissing "GET OUT!!!", would calmly say, "Too bad we can't stay."
Yet here we have Katie, haunted by this resurrected spirit from her past, covering her ears and eyes and hoping it all goes away. Well, that's not entirely true. She's bitching constantly at Micah for being proactive in trying to figure out what the hell is going on. She feels no guilt over never having mentioned her possession by demons before moving in nor gives thanks to her boyfriend for getting to live in his pretty cool pad while studying to be an English teacher. Most English majors I knew lived in real squalor or at the bus station. Probably still do.
Micah is no picnic either. He's a day trader by trade. Which, of course, means he's a fantastically insufferable ballsack. He's gadget crazy, domineering, doesn't listen to Katie's wishes, must control every situation, won't ask for directions.... in other words, male.
What they both lack (besides a healthy relationship) is the ability to discern that when you have endless hours of audio and video footage of demonic activity within your own home you can:
a) phone the authorities with the proof
b) get some protection (the power in numbers theory)
c) make a shitload of cash from TV producers
d) and relocate to a less haunted house in the OC. What'd you expect from the San Diego real estate market anyway for chrissakes?!
Instead, they bicker for three weeks, tolerate shit like slamming doors, shattering glass, sleepless nights, thundering footsteps and sheer emotional and physical trauma. All to a purpose that is never specified. Did they really think they could wait it all out?
Me? I'd call those meddling kids driving around in the Mystery Machine. Strangle the dandy with his own ascot, plow the hot redhead, burn one with Shaggy, feed the dog some treats and get the fat chick with the glasses to save me from the local robber baron.
Then again, I've always kept a cool head.