Monday, January 04, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Paranormal Activity (2009)

I am very much aware that many mainstream critics and horror bloggers whom I respect did not care much for The Blair Witch Project (1999). I've listened to their careful arguments and I do understand and appreciate them. But for me, the film remains an absolute masterpiece, even ten years later.

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.

16 comments:

  1. Anonymous3:10 PM

    Another great and thought provoking fimm essay John and I pretty much agree with your sentiments. My POV actually is that Paranormal Activity is the Feel Good Movie of the year. Here is a bunch of unknowns who sorta hit the movie lottery, they made this thing for next to nothing and then it got a decent release with enough audience buzz going that they made some serious cash. It's a clever concept that would have worked well in a Twilight Zone episode. I was surprised I actually really enjoyed the film and didn't let some of the unreal aspects bother me. In terms of filming the demon I suspended my disbelief until the very end (In each of the endings I saw) where the whole enterprise had to be wrapped up somehow. It might have been more effective to leave it up in the air but maybe these guys were taking the same route as Cameron in Avatar and feeding the, instead of breadcrumbs on the path of the story, huge submarine sandwiches for us to trip over and follow.

    Personally I like things a little more subtle but it was clever and fun. I still like Zombieland the best for 2009 in horror, even over Drag me to Hell. I'm going to have to rent REC since you've been reccomending it but watch it in the daytime! :-)

    Phil
    captphilonline.com

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  2. Hey Phil!

    Thanks for the comment, and happy 2010. I have not yet seen Zombieland, though I plan to, soon.

    I agree with you: I'm happy for the Paranormal Activity team. Their film found a wide, appreciative audience. That's good.

    I didn't hate it. I just wish it had been as scary as advertised. I brushed the whole thing off with alarming ease...

    best,
    JKM

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  3. You've got my curiosity piqued with another of your great reviews, JKM. I'll be queuing up PA soon because of this. I enjoyed Blair Witch, but susceptibility to motion sickness via the shaky cam technique does tend to skew my judgement, at times ;-). Luckily, most of that is migrated on home theater.

    And because of your review and recommendation last year for REC, I watched it. Man, was that great! @Anonymous, good call for wanting to watch it during the daytime. And, put me down for as another voting member for Zombieland, too--that was so much fun!

    Thanks, John.

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  4. Happy New Year, Le0pard13:

    Paranormal Activity is worth seeing, especially in this environment of remakes and reboots. It didn't work for me, and it doesn't live up to the hype, but it has some interesting moments.

    Glad you saw (and enjoyed) REC -- and now with your vote, I definitely have to see Zombieland...

    best,
    JKM

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  5. very very gods sites andd yoru job very beatiful thanks my friend

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  6. Jake Lockley12:47 AM

    Where to start with my random comments... First with Wes Craven's New Nightmare. When this movie came out I believe what Wes wanted it to be is what The Blair Witch Project was. He wanted people to be talking about the film at film festivals as something that blurred the line between reality and fiction. Second, while not a horror film, the first film that I believe did what all these films try to do was 84 Charlie MoPic, about film recovered in the field of Vietnam - no cameraman, just the film. At the time I was not familiar with the actors in that film, and felt I was looking at real soldiers. REC didn't do too much for me but I did like the demon-linked premise. I could throw the rest of the film away. Cloverfield I thought was okay, but I can say definitively that EVERY time I watch that film I have nightmares about running and hiding from giant monsters. Mission accomplished. Beyond that I have to give the Whitley Streiber books a notable mention (in part because of The Fourth Kind which falls in with this group). They scared the hell out of me. The movie not so much except for the one scene where the alien peeks out from behind the dresser in the middle of the night. That one scene captured everything terrifying about the books. I also like your note about today's realities - if this were happening people woul dbe uploading footage to YouTube that night.

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  7. Excellent review. I was wondering you thought of this film and I am curious to see it myself. I also agree with you completely re: THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and never understood the criticism against it. Like yourself, I love the ambiguity of the film - that is what has me coming back for more, and watching it time and time again. The film has aged well, esp. in this day and age with an over-reliance on CGI.

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  8. Hey J.D.!

    Happy new year! I'm so glad to learn that you are a Blair Witch Project supporter too. I agree with you that the ambiguity of the whole thing is the key. I remember, my late friend Johnny Byrne (who was story editor on Space:1999) talked to me extensively about Blair Witch (which he loved...) and said that it was a prime example of the filmmakers turning their weakness (lack of resources, money, etc.) into a strength. I've never forgotten that, and I agree with the assessment. A masterpiece.

    best,
    JKM

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  9. Hey J.D.!

    Happy new year! I'm so glad to learn that you are a Blair Witch Project supporter too. I agree with you that the ambiguity of the whole thing is the key. I remember, my late friend Johnny Byrne (who was story editor on Space:1999) talked to me extensively about Blair Witch (which he loved...) and said that it was a prime example of the filmmakers turning their weakness (lack of resources, money, etc.) into a strength. I've never forgotten that, and I agree with the assessment. A masterpiece.

    best,
    JKM

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  10. OK, I'm going to disagree with you somewhat on this one. (Agree on Blair Witch, and heartily recommend the film Jake mentions, 84 Charlie Mopic, which just may be my favorite 'Nam movie). PA takes place in the context of a Youtube-saturated environment... there are literally thousands of "real ghost" videos out there (and even more "real bigfoot" footage). Most of them show things similarly or even more blatantly netherworldy than anything Micah's cam captures. (Some good ones to search for: "Elevator Ghost" and "Wisconsin Werewolf", not to mention "Polish Yeti Watches Bikini Girl" - a title which sounds like it could be a lost Ray Dennis Steckler movie) Of course, the intelligent viewer logically assumes that they're faked... so we can assume that Micah would in fact post the footage and be greeted with loud cries of "FAKE!". (Footage of Micah doing exactly this should have been an extra on the video, come to think of it). We are in an era when footage such as PA shows isn't strange or unusual, it's commonplace... and that's the context the movie should be seen in.

    I agree that the Witchboard-antics of Micah's ouija board were ridiculous. That was a bad choice but it didn't take me out of the movie. The film was best when the ghostie actions were more subtle, or more eerie. I liked the "dragged out of the bed by her foot" bit just because it was so eerie (and similar things have been reported in possesion/haunting cases).

    And to compare "character realism" in the two films BWP and PA actually favors the latter... I've been in scary/dangerous situations with other people many times and never did anyone behave like those three BWP idiots ("I tore up the map"). Doesn't mean that there aren't people who would, just no one I know. However, Micah and Katie do seem like people I know, and both behave in ways that those people would behave. (Although why Micah wouldn't reach out to one of the innumerable "Paranormal Investigation Squads" is only explainable by the fact that the movie was filmed three years ago, before Ghost Hunters metastasized).

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  11. Hey DLR:

    I welcome an alternative viewpoint on the film. In fact, I know that many, many reviewers really praised the film;that my opinion/judgment is the minority.

    You make good points, and some of this is surely a judgment call and matter of personal taste.

    When the ouija board scene occurred, for instance, my wife looked at me and said (in a line I used in the review "the movie just crossed a line...").

    She was right, I think, and from that point on, the movie kept crossing the line from ambiguity to cold hard fact, right up to the sad final (obvious) shot of the CGI demon.

    Bottom line: I wish I had liked this film more. I was really looking forward to it. I didn't hate it; I liked the character aspect of it very much (as I wrote in the review), I just wish the horror elements were handled with more skill.

    But again, I realize my view is not in the majority. The film was very positively received by most other critics...

    best,
    JKM

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  12. I'm not sure if anyone else got to see this, but I happened to watch a version of the movie online (http://tiny.cc/DCz2f) that had the 'original' ending in place (which sounds like it might be better than the one they changed it to). In this version we see a sleepwalking/possessed Katie get up out of bed, stare at Micha for a bit and wander off downstairs. She starts screaming uncontrollably, sending Micha careening downstairs calling out her name. A commotion ensues, and we're left suspecting that something terrible has happened to Micah. As the scene continues to play out, he hear someone stomping up the stairs as Katie slowly comes back into the bedroom holding a butcher knife with what we assume is Micah's blood on her. She sits at the foot of the bed, knife in hand, and starts slowly rocking back and forth in a catatonic state. The camera speeds ahead as she continues to rock that way for many hours. Eventually we return to 'real time' as we hear one of Katie and Micha's friends arrive at the house to check on them after not being able to reach them by phone. We hear the friend scream, and we're left to assume that she spotted Micha stabbed to death and then fled to get the police. Sometime later we hear the police arrive downstairs. More clues as to what what happened to Micha come from the overheard conversation between the cops as they speak into their radios and make their way upstairs to complete a room to room search. We see Katie finally stop rocking back and forth and begin to come out of her trance as the police stumble upon her. Awaking in confusion, she calls out for Micha while stumbling towards the police covered in his blood, knife in hand. They yell at her to drop the knife, but are forced to make a quick decison to use deadly force. Katie's connection to her tormenting demon is brought to a tragic end as the officers open fire.

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  13. I've been hooked on your blog for several days now. (starting with your great District 9 review). But this is the one that has secured me as a constant reader from now on. You were able to nail my thoughts on the film when I wasn't able to clearly form them. I liked the idea of the film. I like the content. I liked certain aspects of it. The open bedroom door out into the dark hallway was very effective to me. If nothing had every come through that hall I'd still be scared of it. I think my other problem along with the 'connection' to Katie angle was the idea of making it a demon in the first place. It should be more about the house itself and not about what's causing the disturbance. It's taking a place you feel safe and making it fearful. The reason I love Blair Witch had nothing to do with a witch and more to do with the woods. The woods scare the crap out of me and I used to go camping all the time.

    Thank you good sir. I look forward to reading more of what you have to offer in the future.

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  14. Jergy: Welcome! I'm glad you enjoyed the District 9 review and this one. I really wanted to like Paranormal Activity more than I did...I'm bummed it didn't work for me the way BWP did; and it sounds like we're on the same page there.

    best,
    JKM

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  15. I found your comparisons between this movie and the ones you've quoted to be relevant and spot on. Will see the blair witch and then this one

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  16. Paranormal Activity never really stood a chance with me. From the earliest buzz thru the blitz of tv ads featuring freaked out theater patrons. Contrived? uh yeah.
    Yes, its great to welcome a new director on the scene.
    But...was he? The final product left me unimpressed. Weighed down by generic pacing, production design and script. I wouldnt be surprised to learn that PA was actually directed by committee. Yes it filled a void that existed for a update of the found footage genre. But the spirit of the Maryland Woods, need not worry.

    RioBlue

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