Late to the dance as usual, I finally got the chance to watch Paranormal Activity, the ultra low budget scary flick that got noticed at the Slamdance Film Festival* in 2008 and then pretty much went on to take over the world. More haunting than horrific, this little movie that could is a textbook example of how to scare people through tension and suspense.
Katie and Micah are a young couple (“engaged to be engaged,” per Micah) who live in a nice new house in San Diego. They’ve just bought a video camera because there have been quite a few bumps in the night at their house and Micah hopes to figure out what’s going on while they sleep – if it’s a peeping tom neighbor or raccoons in the garbage or whathaveyou. Katie has another thought: she has felt haunted by a presence off and on since she was a child, and she thinks it’s this presence that is causing the ruckus.
As the days pass, and the creeptastic disturbances increase – loud bangs and thumps, scratching in the walls, household objects moved (or moving) of their own accord – Katie and Micah themselves begin to deteriorate. This once-happy pair start snapping and sniping at each other from the stress and lack of sleep. Micah is determined to protect his girlfriend and figure out what’s going on; Katie becomes more and more terrified and withdrawn. And as their stress level grows, so does the audience’s because we are seeing just what they are seeing, all through the eye of that video camera.
This “found footage” type of movie – like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and [REC], etc., before it – is the perfect means of storytelling where so much of tension is off-screen – if the ostensible filmer doesn’t see it, the audience doesn’t see it, and both the characters and the audience get to use their imaginations to ramp up the scares. In Paranormal Activity almost all of anything frightening, gory or violent happens out of range of the camera which is stuck on its tripod in Micah and Katie’s bedroom; you hear the screams and the heavy footsteps tromping up the stairs, but you have to imagine just what’s happening. Of course, the truly creepiest moments are when a sleepwalking or possessed Katie climbs out of bed to just stand there, staring down at the oblivious, sleeping Micah, while the camera’s time-clock ticks off hours of passing time. Eeeeeerie.
This sort of movie freaks me out WAY more than creature features or bucket o’ blood slashers. Things that JUMP scare me; and I am entirely susceptible to a skilled heightening of tension. This is not a movie I would have wanted to see at home alone (and I think it’s ideal to watch as a rental rather than i nthe theater because hey, it’s supposed to be home-made video and it just makes sense to watch it at home). Mr. Mouse had fallen asleep as soon as I turned it on (despite the fact that it’s the perfect length for him at 86 minutes) and was snoring during the last 20 or so minutes; although I was annoyed that I had to keep poking him for the snoring, which took me out of the movie**, in the end I was grateful that I had those distractions to ease my own tension a little.
As it was, I was wound up enough that it took me over an hour to fall asleep afterward, not because I thought I was hearing my own bumps in the night, but because I was thinking about what I’d just watched and how much I liked it. It’s been a while since a movie has done that for me. Kudos, little Paranormal Activity, nicely played.
* Slamdance is the "anarchic" alternative Utah film festival that occurs at the same time as the now more mainstream Sundance Film Festival.
** The only thing that caused my willing suspension of disbelief to waver was the fact that these two young people, in their late 20s at most, Katie a “student” and Micah a “daytrader,” owned such a nice house in San Diego. Mr. Mouse and I had checked out southern California house prices and unless these two were trust fund babies, there is no way they could have bought that house on their own. But ghosts/demonic presences? Sure – you bet I’ll believe that!
2 hours ago