Monday, October 24, 2011

30 Days of Fright - 23: Paranormal Activity

My dislike of films made from the first person, that is as if they were entirely recorded on a regular video camera, is by now well documented. I don’t like the idea, not because it always results in poor movies, but because it’s a gimmick so flawed that there’s never a really good excuse to use this method of film production. Every time it gets trotted out new and even more outlandish reasons for the filming to be taking place have to be concocted and these reasons inevitably become less and less plausible and therefore more and more insulting to the audience. When you look back at how often this style has featured in horror you’re forced to ask why did it become so popular in the first place? I think it’s partly down to the notion of how anyone could make one of these movies (which is total nonsense really as there’s increasingly a decent sized budget and crew behind the whole thing(though to be fair, not in the case of last nights movie)), but it’s mostly about attempting to inject a heavy dose of realism into the films. If the things you’re seeing on screen were filmed on someone’s Dad’s Handycam, then they might really have happened, and that adds to the scare factor. The worst miss-step of too many first person films is that the element of reality provided by the video camera approach is wasted by the events that then take place in the film.

Set in San Diego in 2006, Paranormal Activity (2007) is the film of the material recorded on the video camera of Micha Sloat (Micah Sloat) as he filmed21 days and nights during September and October of that year in an effort to figure out and deal with what was happening to his girlfriend Katie Featherston (Katie Featherston - no I haven't flipped my lid or hit 'paste' twice by accident, they play themselves in the movie). For most of her life Katie had suffered from a number of unusual problems that appeared to be related to a haunting that occurred when she was a little girl. Unlike a traditional haunting the entity involved was haunting her and not the house she grew up in. This became apparent when the strangeness returned to her new home with Micha.

Unimpressed with the situation, made up of strange noises and moving objects during the night, Micha bought himself a good quality camera and all the gear he’d need to capture footage of whatever it is, as at the back of it all he really suspects the neighbours kids are playing an elaborate prank. The first few nights footage do show some minor unusual happenings, like lights turning on and doors opening by themselves. No longer suspecting those pesky kids, Micha begins to get excited and interested in the possible explanations. Katy is less impressed with things and is far more inclined to be terrified by them. She calls in a psychic to offer some advice and after an awkward meeting the psychic reveals that whatever is after Katy it’s not a ghost in the traditional sense, in that it’s not the spirit of a human, and he gives her the number of a local demonologist who might be able to help.

As time passes, and possibly due to Micha’s interference, the phenomena get progressively worse and Katy is affected by them directly. More physical manifestations occur and it slowly dawns on Micha and Katy that what was once a bit of a nuisance might actually be a very real danger to them both...

Micah's "busy" hand puts the shits up Katie

Paranormal Activity did not fare well at the cinema. I don’t mean in terms of money or box office figures or anything like that, what I mean is that audiences weren’t kind to the film. When I saw it at the picture house the audience were particularly cruel, especially for the scenes where things happen over time at night so the footage is sped up for you to see events that might be hours apart or take place slowly over a couple of hours. This kind of thing didn’t scare people, it made them laugh. The thing is Paranormal Activity had no business being in the cinema in the first place. This is very definitely a film to watch at home on a TV as it adds to the idea of watching footage from a video camera that anyone could own. In the cinema, it was a Hollywood movie offered up for your approval or otherwise. On TV, it’s a dread delivery system and quite an effective one.

Paranormal Activity works by slowly building up the tension by showing practically nothing and mixing in a very real sense of terror on Katie's part mixed with a sense of excitement on Micah's. As the events progress everyone is left wondering how things will turn out, even though there's a hint at the beginning when thanks are offered to the San Diego Police Department that there isn't a happy ending coming. A clever use of sound effects manages to ratchet up the tension at the right moment, and when something does happen you're left feeling a little silly that you were so worried and also a little relieved. This excellent dread development does not however work all the way through the film and things do start to go awry as the story moves along.

After a while you start to wonder why Micah and Katie don't take more drastic action to deal with their worsening problems. As far as Micah is concerned, seeing as how he does so much research on the Internet on the subject of the paranormal you'd expect him to have come up with something more action-orientated then simply filming their bedroom at night.While he seems reluctant to get outside help, it's weird that he didn't download a do-it-yourself exorcism kit or some such. As for Katie, the focus of all the trouble, I'm shocked that she didn't just leave Micah as he's quite the dickhead! The really odd thing though is that neither of them turned to God-bothering (AKA: religion) for a little help, though Katie does get a little cross at one point (you would too if you were shacked up with that gobshite Micah), but if demons and ghosts and psychics had become a regular part of your day I don't see how an actual exorcist would have hurt.

Technically, Paranormal Activity is quite an achievement as it was made on a teeny-tiny budget. The two principle actors are very good, effectively playing themselves, but putting some effort into it. There's no music to speak of and the only set is a house, which is fine. There are some effects and they work well considering the low budget, though the final shot's in the film aren't spectacular in that regard.

The most important aspect of Paranormal Activity is, like any film, the story. The one presented here works for a "recovered footage" style movie and manages to make you concerned for those involved. It's not a terrifying movie, but it is creepy, and that's better than nothing.

One Thumb Up and One Thumb Down for Paranormal Activity.

Paranormal Aclinkity:

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