Yes, The Blair Witch Project is a messy and chaotic film, I readily acknowledge that fact. But it is gloriously messy and chaotic; in a fashion that is extremely frightening to me; in a manner that reflects some cogent truths about our human existence (and the American cultural experience...) circa the mid-to-late 1990s.
The film either concerns three students who are bedeviled by their own arrogance and incompetence; or it is a film that concerns three students who are bedeviled by something infinitely worse. It is either a shaggy dog, chasing-your-tail story about three kids who get lost in the woods and come to a bad end, or a story about three kids cursed by a witch and led to their inevitable doom, Hansel & Gretel-style.
Whichever answer is the "right" one, The Blair Witch Project is a living, breathing paean to ambiguity. It is open to multiple interpretations, and the visuals of the film artistically reflect that.
Sometimes we're watching events unfold on film stock; sometimes we're watching them on videotape. Sometimes, the players in the drama "stage" their surroundings (for a mock documentary...), and sometimes they are overcome by the reality of nature (or is it the witch?) surrounding them. In short, the film splinters the narrative both visually and thematically, and then asks us -- as the primary percipients -- to find facts. Because of the tabloid nature of television in the late 1990s, and the increasingly "he said/she said" political-spin of the new 24-hour news cable shows (commenting endlessly on such matters as the Clinton Impeachment), The Blair Witch Project said something about us. It reflected our sudden inability -- even with abundant and easy technology -- to easily see "truth."
Many, many good friends and colleagues of mine complain because The Blair Witch Project concludes without explanation and ultimately reveals nothing. For me, that's not a problem. On the contrary, that's part of the movie's incredible charm and enduring power. Like The Birds (1962) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) the answer to many a riddle is left to the viewer here. The mission is to grab the dangling threads of an ambiguous narrative and somehow tie together strands in hopes of finding meaning or order. This is an activity I cherish as a viewer and as a critic.
This is also, as I've noted, an activity that reflects our human life and explains one reason our existence can be so scary. We don't get answers all the time for why things happen. Often, events that most dramatically affect us happen outside our vision; outside our control. Why do planes crash? Why do some unlucky souls board planes that crash? Why is a person we love afflicted with a brain tumor, or some other disease, when we would prefer it happen to a stranger? In an aggressive, post-modern, technologically-savvy way, that's what The Blair Witch Project is all about: the struggle to assemble a sense of order out of pixelized images that don't make sense in a traditional or conventional way. In the hyper, information-overload era of the Internet and 24 hour news cycles, The Blair Witch Project asked us to fill in the blanks, to imagine the horrors that our eyes didn't actually witness.
Now, a full ten years later, along comes Paranormal Activity, a horror film that utilizes the some m.o. as The Blair Witch Project (found footage and a cinema verite approach to what seems a spontaneous, "real" story). Unfortunately, however, Paranormal Activity goes to absurd lengths to satisfy the still-vocal anti-Blair Witch Project crowd by positioning every demonic "event," -- every horrifying moment in the film -- literally front and center. This way, no one can complain the film doesn't deliver the "goods" that were expected, I suppose.
In truth a sort of anti-Blair Witch Project Project, there is precisely nothing left to our imaginations (or speculation) in Paranormal Activity, a fact which -- for me (and for my wife, who watched alongside me) -- rendered the film intriguing but ultimately powerless to scare us. The film did not rattle either of us in the slightest. I slept soundly last night after viewing the film, my psyche entirely untroubled by what it had witnessed. By contrast, I have watched The Blair Witch Project probably a dozen times over the years and every time I do so, it haunts me. It perplexes me. If The Blair Witch Project comparison doesn't work for you, I also felt the same way after seeing the brilliant [REC] (2007). Hell, I was was even suitably rattled by Cloverfield (2008).
All those films looked like real life unfurling before your eyes, in all its messiness and half-glimpsed madness. But again, not so Paranormal Activity (2009), which spoon-feeds you a traditional, predictable narrative, and satisfies the urgent audience need for "closure" with a sad aesthetic capitulation: A CGI close-up of a demonic visage.
I want it clearly understood: I am not part of some Paranormal Activity backlash. I have no horse in that particular race. I'm simply responding to a film I just watched.
I suspect that a central problem here is that Paranormal Activity is very stagnant in visualization, an admittedly interesting opposite conceit to the shaky-cam aesthetic of Blair Witch, REC and Cloverfield.)
In other words, much of the film is static: photographed from a stationary camera planted firmly on a tripod. Therefore, much of the demonic activity in the film occurs right in front of that unmoving camera, even symmetrically-framed at points. Accordingly, the film's weakest moment finds a Ouija board planchette come to demonic life -- in the center of a frame.
But it doesn't just move imperceptibly. It hops, dances, turns around, and then even catches fire, going up in flames before the camera's unblinking eye. Because of the staging, the moment plays more like an amateur magic trick than an authentically scary moment. If the staging had been different, if we had been forced to seek a less egregious bit of paranormal activity in the corners or background of the frame, the moment would have proved frightening. What's missing is ambiguity...and subtlety.
Later, an invisible demon actually pulls one of the lead characters, Katie Featherston, out of her bed, and, in the same vein, we see it all happen without impediment: perfectly framed, perfectly lit and perfectly clear. Moments later, her boyfriend Micah goes after her, and the demonic entity obligingly tosses his body right into the camera. The camera falls over and still captures the action perfectly, as the demon -- now visible in a human body -- gets ready, literally, for her close-up.
I don't want to be unkind and call this approach Blair Witch For Dummies, but Paranormal Activity is certainly a Blair Witch-style film designed for -- shall we say -- more mainstream audiences. No one will walk out of this film with any questions, uncertainties about what happened or any disappointment that the monster wasn't revealed.
And that's to Paranormal Activity's deficit. The film also shoots itself in the foot by almost immediately attributing the pervasive demonic activity to a "connection" between the unseen monster and Katie. She tells us how a supernatural entity has followed her from house to house since she was eight. Then a paranormal expert interviews Katie and explicitly tells her that it is "basically connected" to her.
Some critical quality of the horror genre is our capacity to "universalize" the horror on screen and identify with it on personal terms. Jaws is so damn frightening because we all swim in the ocean...and can imagine ourselves in the position of a shark attack victim. Ditto Psycho...we all understand the vulnerability of a shower. On and on it goes. We must, eventually, sleep, so Invasion of the Body Snatchers gets under our skin too. Even The Blair Witch Project -- a movie about getting lost in the woods -- harks back to something primal and powerful in our human nature; a fear of what's out there in nature; a fear of being lost.
Almost from frame one, Paranormal Activity goes to great lengths to stress that this horror is happening to Katie and only Katie. We could all show up for afternoon tea or a nightly sleep-over and be treated to quite the show...safe and sound (since the demon doesn't want us.) This plot-point reduces Paranormal Activity to something akin to a freak show.
There's also a huge gap in verisimilitude inherent in the film's aesthetic choices. I'll put it this way: For the last quarter century, hand-held video cameras have been everywhere. They've been affordable...and ubiquitous. And not once -- NOT ONCE -- in a million-upon-a million-instances, has a video camera recorded anything as overtly supernatural as the most simple "paranormal" incident featured in this film (for argument's sake, let's say the bedroom door swinging open of its own volition.)
Yet here, Micah's always-filming camera records doors opening and closing, demonic footsteps appearing in powder on the floor, a shadowy mass moving across the bedroom wall, a Ouija board planchette spontaneously moving and then burning for several seconds. And, finally, the whopper: a human being tugged out of bed, down the hall, by an invisible force. Oh, and the smiley demon face in close-up.
I should stress, these events do not happen at all once. They happen over a period of something like twenty-one nights according to the film's time-line. After the spontaneous explosion of the Ouija board planchette, wouldn't any reasonable person start uploading this footage to YouTube? Or contact the local news? Nothing even approximating this scale of supernatural intervention has EVER been captured anywhere, and yet Micah and Katie remain sequestered and alone in their house, increasingly vulnerable to attacks.
I hasten to add, this decision doesn't seem to ring true with Micah's character: he's in this "game" for the fun and the excitement. "Do you know any tricks to make it happen?" he asks Katie early in the film, considering the whole thing a lark. Later, he insults the demon ("you're worthless!..."I'm calling you out!") after explicitly being warned not to do so. The underlying and implicit idea here is that Micah -- ever the confident day trader -- wants to capture on film that which has not been filmed before and make a name for himself in the process. He's the Balloon Boy Dad, only with demons instead of dirigibles.
So why -- when such incontrovertible proof exists on camera -- would Micah not immediately produce it for the world? What good is all the fancy, expensive AV equipment if he's never going to actually show his footage to anybody? What's he waiting for? An Actors' Studio-style one-on-one interview with a Demon?
I often write here about how form and content should intertwine; how images and visual style should interact meaningfully with a narrative. This is the fatal disconnect of Paranormal Activity: it is mounted as a "realistic," experiential film like Blair Witch in visualization (the static camera and cinema verite-style), but the characters make unrealistic choices. Furthermore, especially during the demonic attack sequences, the camera work proves absolutely untrue to life as we experience it: providing us crystal-clear proof of that which has never, ever been proven conclusively with our technology: the existence of demons. Listen, I've been fisked up-and-down about this topic before from another blogger: I'm not saying that movies that reveal demons, vampires or monsters are bad; I'm saying only that Paranormal Activity suffers from two opposite impulses: it wants to be an experiential, cinema-verite film (like REC or Cloverfield) and yet it also tries to give us the clarity of vision in terms of the supernatural that we are afforded in a more traditional horror film, like The Exorcist, for instance.
Despite these concerns, I don't want to give the impression that Paranormal Activity is a terrible or awful film. I was intrigued throughout, and enjoyed elements of it. But ultimately, it simply didn't scare me.
In fact, the parts of the film I appreciated the most occurred outside the demonic attacks and horror elements. I was fascinated, for instance, by the constant push-pull-tug between Micah and Katie as they each sought to be the dominant partner in their relationship. Micah pushed and pushed, beyond reason, to get his way (again, he's a confident day trader...) and Katie -- who spent her whole life being terrorized by the unseen (a demonic man?) -- permits her boyfriend to terrorize her again with his perpetual disregard for her safety and her wishes. More than anything, Paranormal Activity is about the game of control in a romantic relationship. It's about a woman who has lived her life has a victim and the boyfriend who knows that; and who uses that quality against her to push the agenda that what he wants.
The performers playing these leading roles don't hit a single false note. They are uniformly good and utterly believable. I just wish that the screenplay had trusted them a little more, and not felt the need to rely on perfectly-captured supernatural parlor tricks during the horror moments.
The real crux of Paranormal Activity is revealed early. The ghost hunter asks Micah and Katie if there is any negativity in their relationship. They falsely answer no, and the ghost hunter is relieved. The demon feeds off negativity, he warns. The remainder of the film is actually about this conversation and about this lie: about how totally dysfunctional the Micah/Katie relationship really is. Micah constantly bull-dozes over Katie's wishes and betrays her trust again and again. He lies about the camera being off; he lies about acquiring a Ouija board, and on and on. These "little" lies add up to the very negativity that allows the demon into their house. At the same time, Katie is so passive that she permits Micah to run roughshod over her. He possesses control over her life. And so, accordingly, when her body stands to be possessed, literally, by a demon, it hardly looks like an effort. Once you lose control of your life, control of your spirit isn't far behind.
That is a great, human story. Yet Paranormal Activity is finally so unsubtle, so without nuance in its approach to the horror elements, that the character story is all-but sacrificed. A line is crossed. In this film, our eyes should be scanning every frame, every background and foreground, for signs of Katie's demon. The filmmakers should be making us hunt out evidence of the demon. We should be working hard; engaged.
Instead, the film doesn't trust us to pay attention. The paranormal activity is so obvious, so unreal, so-in-your-face, that the movie sacrifices the cinema-verite approach it covets. I'm delighted the film will spawn many new low-budget genre efforts. I'm thrilled it has launched the career of director Oren Peli, and that we can expect more from him in the future. But I still wish Paranormal Activity had been more....skillful.
Because Paranormal Activity comes across as a Cliff-Notes variation on The Blair Witch Project formula, one designed for those among us who prefer our ghosts served up front-and-center, our answers lined up neatly in-frame, and ambiguity forever banished to the nether-realms. I guess it comes down to this: do you want your horror movies to engage and deal with the questions we face in real life; or do you simply want them to serve as an "escape?" Ultimately, I judge The Blair Witch Project far superior to Paranormal Activity because it engages the questions of real life. Paranormal Activity passes the time well-enough, and has a nice jolt or two, but there's nothing about the demon (and the depiction of the demon) that I ever recognized as "real."
Now Micah? He's another story. I have a friend who's dating a guy just like that. And that's why Paranormal Activity works as well as it does. The characterizations and relationships are indeed very human. It's just the staging of the horror -- of the inhuman -- that totally undercuts the film's suspension of disbelief.