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Paranormal Activity: the review

27 Sep , 2009,
Chip Street
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paranormal-activity-movie-poster1Paranormal Activity horror film review

“Once every five years, a guy makes a movie for a nickel that can cross over to a broad audience,” says “Paranormal Activity” producer Jason Blum, who, as a senior executive at Miramax Films, had a producing credit on “The Reader” and acquired the supernatural thriller “The Others.” “And there are about 3,000 of these movies made every year, so this film is about one in 15,000.”

THE BUZZ

You’ve heard the buzz. Paranormal Activity, “the little indie horror film that could” about a couple who videotapes a demon haunting them in their home, made in a week for $11,000 by a guy with no filmmaking experience (Oren Peli, a video game programmer) gets seen at a horror fest (Screamfest), scares Spielberg so bad he won’t keep the DVD in his house (marketing hype, anyone?), and gets picked up by DreamWorks for the full court press. (LATimes story here)

Except DreamWorks wants to remake the movie. Which the filmmaker agrees to, with the caveat that DreamWorks must do one test screening. Which they do. And people walk out. “Oh shit,” thinks the filmmaker, “my movie must really suck.” Except it doesn’t. When asked why they walked out, viewers claimed to be so scared by the movie that they couldn’t handle watching any more (more marketing hype, anyone?).

So Paramount (which owns DreamWorks) thinks maybe they’ve got another no-budget no-name lightning-in-a-bottle Blair Witch scenario with a huge financial upside on their hands, and decides to do more test screenings around the country in little art house theaters in little college towns like mine to build the buzz toward a serious big screen release (or at least a license to print money with a DVD release).

And I got tickets.

(Now is as good a time as any to say that I hated Blair Witch. Flat out hated it. Laughed all the way through it. Derided the poor saps who actually believed — even after the stars appeared at the MTV Music Awards! — that it was a true story and all those poor kids had died. I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t creeped out. Oh, I got that it was unique, I got that its presentation was exciting and new. I just thought it was a shitty movie.)

THE MOVIE

So, is Paranormal Activity any good?

The movie was slated to start at 10pm on a Thursday night. On a hunch, I decided to show up at 8:30 just in case there was rush, and ended up being about 75th in line. Yup, lots of people in little college towns like free movies.

Once they let folks in, every seat had a butt in it… “the little movie that could” (with the help of a healthy dose of marketing acumen from DreamWorks) had sold out the house. The air was abuzz with electricity… teenage girls were giddy with nervous excitement… teenage boys had their chests puffed out and their swagger on. Everyone was ready for “an experience”. Would it be a self-fulfilling prophecy?

A few trailers for upcoming horror/thriller type movies ran ahead of the film, each one eliciting wild screams and hoots and howls from an audience so adrenalin pumped you’d think we were waiting for a prize fight to start. We could tell this was going to be a crazy night.

When the film finally started (easy to tell, as per the choppy hand held home movie image) the crowd let out a scream as though The Rocky Horror Picture Show was rolling.

And then the next ninety minutes were spent listening to teeny bopper girls squeal and scream and teeny bopper guys yell “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!” about every 90 seconds. Now I get it, it’s a scary movie, screaming will happen. But seriously, screaming when a character turns out a light? Narrating the film with “Oh fuck she just went outside!”? Please. Grow the fuck up.

But was it scary?

In a word, yes.

In more words, it’s very scary. I had anxiety and adrenalin pumping through me like hasn’t happened in a long long time. The film does a great job of building tension, of offering cues to impending action in the form of a Jaws-theme-esque rumbling baseline as something “paranormal” is about to happen. It does a great job of developing characters, their relationships, and the destructive effects the growing threats have on them. And it does it all in a way that does probably the best job of any movie employing the “auto-chronicled narrative conceit” (yes, I believe I just coined that term, tell a friend) has done to date.

Paranormal Activity is the movie The Blair Witch Project wanted to be and Cloverfield didn’t even try to be. Discuss amongst yourselves the relative success or failure of The Last Broadcast, REC or its American remake Quarantine.

THE LIMITATIONS OF AUTO-CHRONICLING

The “auto-chronicled narrative conceit” has its innate issues. It creates a single camera situation shooting in real time (Blair Witch circumvented this by having two cameras available, but didn’t really leverage it), with one character nearly always off screen, that does away with (or severely hampers) all the established film vocabulary tools… the wides, the two-shots, the over-the-shoulders, the singles, the cutaways, the inserts. All the film tricks that directors and editors use to subconsciously establish relationships between characters, to control tension and mood in dialogue exchanges, to communicate unspoken subtext, to control and structure our experience of the story into a narrative that works, are suddenly wildly restricted if not impossible to leverage.

In order to show us the story in its entirety, the camera operator has to carry the camera with him, and keep it running, and keep it focused, and keep interesting things in frame, all the time. Even when really scary, dangerous things are happening. Especially when really scary, dangerous things are happening. Those are the things that have to be in the shot, right? So he’s not helping his friends, not running for his life with the camera pointed at the ground, but he’s framing the shot.

And we can’t see that character’s reactions to anything going on, since he’s behind the camera (kinda like my mom, who is never in any vacation pics so we can’t prove she was there). Unless he turns the camera on himself and up his nose to tell that he’s “so so scared” — and then we’re not seeing the action, and neither is he. Tough to build empathy for characters who are essentially our guides and who we can’t see engaging in the adventure. They’re narrators, not participants.

Further, the story is shot (as presented in the narrative, not in the true production) in sequence. No flashbacks, no cutting away to other subplots, other characters, to the cops forming a plan, to the army launching a counter-strike, to worried family wondering where our camera operator is. The film has one point of view. One narrative thread.

So the trick is, how do you give your camera operator reasonable reasons to stay focused on the action that don’t yank the audience out of the story? How do you integrate any creative edits, how do you offer different perspectives on the action, how do you shift the audience’s focus or empathy to another character?

It’s not impossible. But it’s hard. And it has to be done right. Which is why most times it fails.

WHY PARANORMAL ACTIVITY WORKS

Paranormal Activity works in part because it finds creative ways to circumvent enough of the restrictions of auto-chronicling to keep the story visually interesting and narratively convincing.

It works because Micah (Micah Sloat), the day trader boyfriend with a fixation for all things electronic, spends his days viewing and editing the footage captured the night before. Katie (Katie Featherston), the girlfriend who is the focus of the demon’s attentions, handles the camera while he edits, shooting the screen and showing us the edited footage. It’s a nice little post-modern self referentialism, and creates the illusion of a flashback, or at least of a secondary narrative reference. It also approximates what the audience recognizes as an OTS (Over The Shoulder) shot, with the frame dirtied a little by Micah’s shoulder, with the focus on he and Katie on the computer screen… so it satisfies our unconscious desire for the filmic OTS convention, within the confines of the auto-chronicle affectation.

It works because, as Micah fiddles with the camera, Katie screams for help from the other room. He takes off to help her, then scurries back to grab the camera before coming to her rescue. It’s played for a laugh, and Katie in fact gives him shit for going to get the camera before helping her, and he matter-of-factly explains that that’s why he bought it. It’s simple, but it acknowledges the narrative difficulty while simultaneously illuminating something about them and their relationship.

It works because it establishes the geography of the house, and uses different rooms to establish different moods. Movies shot in a single location (Micah and Katie never leave their house, with the exception of one short opening scene in the front driveway and one short later scene on the back patio) can often suffer from a lack of geographical variety. When you never leave the house, it’s important to establish zones in the house that the audience can recognize, and understand the relative relationships of. We need to feel like the bedroom, living room and kitchen are three distinct localities so that as our characters move between them we feel like we’re getting the benefit of multiple locations. And we need to understand the physical routes from one locality to the next so we can appreciate what it means when our characters are in the kitchen and something goes “bump” in the bedroom… we know how far away that is, we know there’s a staircase between them, and we know they’ll have to pass by that creepy attic access hatch to get there (Hard Candy — a movie I like a lot — nevertheless was challenged by a lack of this geographical definition, and consequently the tension suffered as we didn’t clearly understand where the bad guy was while Ellen Page rifled through his drawers).

It works because the footage shot in the bedroom (sort of a night-vision, while they sleep) is from a tripod across the room from the bedroom door. The scariest footage is in the room where the characters are most vulnerable… and it’s not shaky hand-held footage, but is static locked down tripod footage. Nobody is in charge. The camera, and we, are voyeurs with no one in control. The frame shows the couple in bed (foot of the bed toward the camera), and the doorway next to the head of the bed. We can see them, and we can see out the door and down the hallway… which is where the entity comes from. Any time we see that shot, we have not only the simple sense of voyeurism, but also the knowledge that they can’t see everything we can see even if they wake up. We can see what’s behind them. We’re put in the omniscient position, and it’s very uncomfortable, because we know we’re going to see impending danger before they do and there’s nothing we can do to warn them.

The bedroom footage also makes use of fast-forward edits. Some nights, many hours go by and nothing happens… so the time code in the corner spins in fast forward, as the couple jerkily flops and rolls around the bed in their sleep, till it rolls to a stop at 3am, to show us the paranormal poltergeistery. At other times, it’s the paranormal poltergeistery that takes place over several hours, and we’re treated again to the discomforting perspective of watching terrible things happen in the room around them while they sleep. This fast forward effect is deceptively simple, and simultaneously unsettling (in the way so many recent horror films have chop-edited their beasties as they approach the camera) while remaining a reasonable and organic byproduct of a necessary edit… which makes it all the more naturalistic, and thus all the more disturbing. It allows us to watch hours of demonic disturbance in 20 seconds, without forgetting that the experience lasted hours. That’s a lot of storytelling in a very efficient presentation.

It also works because the film opens in the middle of the story. The activity has been happening for some time (in fact, since Katie was a child – it’s followed her here), and Micah has purchased the camera equipment for the purpose of chronicling the events. There’s no convenient “happens to be a filmmaker” trope, where the camera just happens to be rolling as things start to happen. And his resultant fascination with it, and penchant for carrying it everywhere, serves to further excuse the fact that it’s always available.

It works because the film builds and arcs very nicely, both emotionally and mechanically. Early on it exploits the cute couple’s sweet relationship, and relies on quite a bit of humor (Micah’s constant urgings to Katie to “test drive” the video camera in the bedroom — she says no), and as the demonic activity progresses slowly from a few scratchy noises, swinging doors and misplaced keys to some very violent and unpleasant sequences, so too does the humor and sweetness give way to tension and apprehension and terror.

But mostly, it works because some very smart character development is allowed to unfold onscreen. Blair Witch failed in part because I didn’t give a shit about any of the characters… she was a bossy bitch, the guys were irresponsible stoners, they don’t really know or like each other very well at the beginning and none of that really changes during the story. Paranormal Activity presents us with a very sweet, very dedicated young couple who we really like (the audience at my screening crooned more than one “Aaaawwww…” as one or the other characters said or did something sweet for the other). And over the course of the story, we see their less attractive traits revealed by the growing stress (she’s a little emotionally damaged, he’s a macho protector who won’t respect her boundaries or admit he needs help with this situation). And because the psychic they’ve brought in early in the film has warned them that the entity feeds on conflict and negative energy, we know that their reasonable devolution and frustration is only making things worse.

Now in spite of my frustration with the talkers and the screamers at my screening (I’d have enjoyed the film much more if there hadn’t been all the “shooshing” from the grownups in the audience trying to shut-the-fuck-up the “Omigod dude she’s gonna die did you see that I’m so scared” Talkie Talkerson’s who were so rattled by the movie they forgot they were in a theater) the rest of the audience at my screening seemed to dig it… I haven’t seen a room full of people shriek in unison like that since the head fell out of the bottom of the boat in Jaws. And they screamed, and they laughed, and as the credits rolled they released a huge community exhalation of relief that it was all finally over and none of it was real, and then they stood around in the theater and in the lobby and on the sidewalk out front taking comfort in one another’s company for another 30 minutes because nobody wanted to go home alone at midnight. They’d all just witnessed something pretty amazing, and they’d all remember where they were when it happened.

But I still think it’d be even scarier at home, late, in the dark, alone (or with a few close friends), on TV. I see “Paranormal Activity” parties in the future.

Maybe even at my house.

WHY IT DOESN’T WORK (Here there be SPOILERS)

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The ending.

The last 20 seconds of the film completely subvert the preceding 90 minutes… all the careful off screen terror, all the quiet building and disintegrating of relationships, all the decidedly un-boo-like scares are forgotten and the movie crescendos with a single in-your-face, at-the-camera “BOO!” that’s utterly out of character.

Oh, we know it’s coming… some deliciously subtle looks and smiles from Katie have telegraphed to us very clearly that something’s gone terribly awry. I could tell from the whimpering and whispered “oh no’s” of the audience that everyone in the room got exactly what was happening. And as Katie screams for help downstairs, and as Micah rushes out of the room to find her — leaving the camera (and us) in the bedroom — and as screams and thrashing crash at us from somewhere in the dark downstairs, we all know what it is we can’t see. And it WORKS.

But the director had to throw a body at us, literally… and then as Katie crawls toward the camera and attacks it open mouthed like a shot cut from Jennifer’s Body, all the good will goes away. The final smash to black, followed by simple titles telling us that Micah’s body was found days later and Katie was never seen again, feel cheap and disappointing and lifted right from Blair Witch. The movie didn’t need to be much longer, and the ending didn’t need to be terribly complicated. But it needed to be more complete. It needed to be more elegant. There is no resolution. The preceding 90 minutes deserved it. Micah and Katie deserved it.

And I deserved it.

My understanding on further research is that (allegedly) Paramount insisted on a reshoot of the ending, and that the ending I saw is the shitty Hollywood studio ending. This link provides an (alleged) accounting of not just one but two alternative endings from other earlier screenings, either of which would have been far better than what I saw and more in keeping with all else that makes the film so successful. If the film gets a wide release, let’s hope they toss the Hollywood ending for something — anything — else.

But you know what? That last 20 seconds doesn’t ruin the entire preceding experience. It’s still a good watch. Just don’t watch it with a bunch of talkative squealy teens. Watch it at home. Late. In the dark. Alone.

I dare you.

12 Comments

  1. Jeff September 27, 2009 at 9:53 am Reply

    This review is dizzingly indepth and packed with all sorts of reasons to see this film. Still, I can’t stand (NOT ONE BIT!) the teenie-bopper Talkie Talkersons or the Twitchy Twittersons. They would ruin the experience for me. So I’ll take your advice and watch it at home. Make sure to trademark the “auto-chronicled narrative conceit” descriptor! You’ll make millions. ;)
    ~ Jeff

    • crankydog September 29, 2009 at 8:10 pm Reply

      One of the articles claims that the producers don’t think it plays as well on a TV as in a theater. There’s a groupthink that happens… but I still think I’d rather not have to share the theater with a bunch of screaming Rocky Horror fans. :)

  2. LINDSAY September 29, 2009 at 12:49 pm Reply

    Loved this review. I really enjoyed the movie as well.

    But I’m trying to see if anyone else had this problem in their theater and no one has been able to tell me:

    The theater manager told us that he hadn’t seen the movie yet but he was supposed to inform us that “the movie isn’t over until the credits run.” This got the entire theater all excited because we assumed something incredible would happen at the end. Well the movie ended (I think), and then the copyright comes up. And… the entire theater waited in there for at least 30 minutes… but the credits never came. So we don’t know if they messed up the reel, or if nothing comes after the copyright? Do you know?

    • crankydog September 29, 2009 at 8:09 pm Reply

      Thanks, Lindsay —

      Tell a friend! Share links to this review – I’d appreciate it!

      We hadn’t heard that warning, but yeah, I mentioned to a friend after waiting a minute or two for credits that “something else is going to happen”… then the movie just started over (I guess they were projecting digitally from a looping DVD?). Clearly this is not the final version for distribution.

      I think the manager was just trying to build some excitement, maybe?

  3. LINDSAY September 30, 2009 at 8:03 am Reply

    Thanks for your response. I will pass on the review for sure.

  4. Paranormal Activity Sneak Peek in Santa Clara, CA « chip street October 1, 2009 at 5:27 pm Reply

    [...] you read my review of Paranormal Activity and are still hoping to catch it, here’s the heads up that it is sneaking STARTING TONIGHT at [...]

  5. Travis October 3, 2009 at 5:34 am Reply

    I saw the movie last night, and after reading the alternate endings I think the Original one sounds amazing, and super frightening, but I like this ending better than the police ending. The entire movie scared the crap out of me, and I’m still freaked out sitting here this morning.

    I was lucky in that I got to see it at the Alamo Drafthouse, which has a no one under 18 policy and a very strict no talking/texting/tweeting policy, so there was no talking, just silence and screaming.

  6. wil b October 6, 2009 at 8:16 pm Reply

    my god, this is exactly what i felt, cheated! this movie ends the same way that viral michael jackson’s ghost video ended. countless emails sent by witless co-workers have had better finales.

    i read that other fellows blog with the multiple ending. those either one would have been better. even just throwing out the type at the end of the movie. they just didn’t mesh.

  7. Tim October 11, 2009 at 3:11 pm Reply

    Original ending 1: The possessed girl approaches camera and slits her throat.
    Original ending 2: The possessed girl sits on bed catatonic for days before the cops break in and shoot her.

    Why did they not use one of those? Just stupid.

  8. Nancie October 12, 2009 at 10:08 am Reply

    I saw the movie yesterday. I have to say that while it was fun to watch, it didn’t scare me much at all. And I hate horror flicks! It was creepy, yes… as any good supernatural story should be with a few scenes that made me jump… but I kept waiting for something more than what I’ve seen on tv already. Maybe I’m just desensitized because I love paranormal shows where they have taken on just about every fathom of the paranormal story (even open minded enough to believe that these entities ‘could’ be possible tho I’ve never had any experiences with the paranormal)… especially some shows like Supernatural (CW) and Paranormal State (A&E) that have had a few episodes of their own that were much much creepier!!!
    With all the dialog back and forth between Micah and Katie that bored me to start, while I understand it builds back story, I thought this could have been edited down to 60 minutes. For me, I felt like it just didn’t live up to the hype…. and I was really looking forward to seeing this movie!
    The alternate endings sound much creepier than the Hollywood one. It’s a shame they changed them. I could see them making a PA2 out of it tho. They left the door open with Micah’s findings of the woman’s website that said she experienced the same years before. So the demon doesn’t die just because Katie does… that’s been done on tv already! We’ll see…

  9. the auto-chronicled narrative conceit « chip street October 26, 2009 at 10:15 pm Reply

    [...] Posted in film by crankydog on October 26, 2009 The following is excerpted from my Paranormal Activity review… it’s a portion of the post that I find myself referring to and wanted the passage in [...]

  10. Paranormal Activity 2 – the sequel – the business of story. June 30, 2010 at 7:40 pm Reply

    [...] you read my exhaustive review of Paranormal Activity, you know I was a big fan of (99% of) the film. Paranormal Activity is the movie The Blair Witch [...]

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