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Paranormal Activity Will Leave An Imprint on Your Psyche

Paranormal Activity
Written and directed by Oren Peli
Paramount/Dreamworks, 2009

The terror in Paranormal Activity is exactly as The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Quarantine, and here’s a movie you would never expect to be compared with the others, United 93, has covered before: mundane, everyday events upset by the unbelievable.  In the case of United 93, the sight of routines being thrown into upheaval leads to terror because the events were real and everybody has their own 9/11 story, and it inevitably leads to people having seen hundreds of videos, mainly of the World Trade Center under siege.  Video is undeniable, it’s truth.  The Blair Witch Project took this idea in 1999 and ran with it, with audience reaction being mixed.  Generally, you hated it because nothing happens for a long time, or you loved it because it took its time in building terror.

One thing Blair Witch didn’t do, however, is manipulate the video with special effects.  We would later see commercials, notably the Gatorade series where we see Michael Vick throwing a ball so hard it’s making receivers fall to the ground, culminating in him throwing one the length of the field and into the stands, or Lebron James making an improbable amount of full-court shots in a row.  Manipulating video with effects was not new, but seamlessly integrating the effect was rather novel.  So, a few years later, in steps Cloverfield with it’s monster from outer space wreaking havoc on New York City.  It’s all captured on video, giving you that sense that it’s really happening.  Cloverfield had many of the same mixed reactions people had with Blair Witch.

So now Paranormal Activity arrives, and I am certain some of the same criticisms will be levied against it.  These kinds of horror movies thrive on the mundane, because the mundane is real.  But you still have people who immediately undermine this technique with a, “Well, I go to the movies to be entertained.  If I want mundane I’ll sip lemonade on my front porch.”  It’s too dismissive for me to hear this argument.  It’s downright lazy, attention-deficit disorder garbage.  Movies shot on film give the appearance that they are always trying to entertain.  Film has a look, a feel, so even the mundane moments go without a bat of an eye.  But when a movie is shot on video, people relate what they’ve seen before: bad home movies or YouTube, and a conversation that takes place in film and might seem riveting seems like boring banter in a movie shot on video.  I’m not sure the people who have a problem with this technique will ever turn around.  To use a cliche: it is what it is, and they are who they are, and I am who I am.

In Paranormal Activity, a couple (Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, using their real names) suspect something strange is going on in their house, and aim to figure out what it is.  Micah takes it upon himself to pick up a camera and mike up the house and document what might be going on while they sleep.  On the first night, the camera captures something innocuous but significant.  They call a psychic (Mark Fredrichs), who informs them that the presence in the house is likely a demon, and after interviewing Katie, who has had run-ins with unexplained phenomena before, he comes to the conclusion that the demon wants Katie.

Micah doesn’t believe in all this, but he continues to document everything, much to the chagrin of Katie, who believes the recording is taunting the demon.  And, though the psychic warns them not to use a Ouija board, Micah takes it upon himself to borrow one anyway.  Pretty much, Micah is one pain in the ass the whole time, doing stupid things that will likely upset the demon and make Katie mad.  But, the recording continues and the things turn from innocuous to downright creepy, wrong, and then terrifying.  Ultimately, we have to wonder if things are going to end happily for this couple.

What this movie does so well is alerting you that something is coming, and then still giving you a good jolt anyway.  It has a terrific use of sound, from the subtle, where you think that you might be imagining it, to the startling, which you are never prepared for.  When the video is reviewed, a fast-forward technique is used in two fantastic ways: one, when it stops, you know something is coming (and again, you’re not sure what), or showing you how long something is going on, to great effect.  There is a fast-forward in this movie that at first, you might not think much of, until you see the time code at the bottom of the screen tick-tock into absolute madness.  The movie is stunning in giving you the unexpected.

Whenever you see “Scariest Movie of All Time” attached to any film, you should definitely be skeptical.  I would ask anyone watching this movie to be extremely skeptical going in, because it will be that much more effective.  Don’t go in thinking this is going to be so scary that your soul is going to high-tail it out of the movie theatre.  No movie is ever really going to be like that.  Thus, don’t expect it.  Just sit down, watch, and see for yourself.

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