The sounds of si­lence

This cheapie sleeper re­lies on sug­ges­tion to scare the life out of you, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

IT WOULD BE un­wise to be­gin this re­view without of­fer­ing a warn­ing caveat.

Once in a while some small hor­ror film builds a rep­u­ta­tion for scar­ing the pants of sub­ur­ban Amer­i­cans, caus­ing them sleep­less nights and pro­pel­ling the odd less sta­ble punter into the near­est men­tal asy­lum. By the time the pic­ture ar­rives on this side of the At­lantic, a mood of bub­bling hys­te­ria – sim­i­lar to the panic that sur­rounds the lat­est in­fluenza pan­demic – will have in­fected the body cin­ema. Do you dare see Eat My Brains? Can you en­dure Vis­cera Is­land without vom­it­ing?

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Well, you know what hap­pens. The cin­ema ends up dis­gorg­ing a mass of only mod­estly un­nerved cit­i­zens. “It wasn’t that scary,” they half-brag.

All of which is in­tended to clar­ify that, though ter­rif­i­cally canny and cau­tiously mod­u­lated, Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity re­mains a cheaply made cham­ber piece that may puz­zle pun­ters who ex­pect all thrillers to look and sound like 2012.

Made for about $15,000, Orin Peli’s film – al­ready, by one mea­sure, the most prof­itable ever made – deals with an or­di­nary cou­ple liv­ing blandly in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia. The sur­pris­ingly cheery Katie (Katie Feather­ston) has long been trou­bled by dis­em­bod­ied voices and bumps in the night. For most of her life the sup­posed spir­i­tual vis­i­ta­tions were mere ir­ri­ta­tions, but dur­ing one par­tic­u­larly nasty haunt­ing her en­tire house burned down.

Now shacked up with Micah (Micah Sloat), a slightly pushy day trader, Katie ap­pears rel­a­tively un­fazed by the con­tin­u­ing phe­nom­ena. Her chap, how­ever, de­cides that he can­not rest un­til he gets to the bot­tom of it all. A video cam­era is pur­chased and is set up to record what hap­pens while they sleep. Will some scaly de­mon burst out of the hot press? Are dis­em­bod­ied spir­its about to em­anate from the air con­di­tioner?

Well, de­spite hav­ing no for­mal film train­ing and lit­tle pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence, Peli un­der­stands how to ex­ploit mea­gre re­sources to best ef­fect. Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity is not about demons, but about the noises demons make and the traces they leave. Pre­sented as a found doc­u­ment, com­posed en­tirely of Micah’s videos, the film of­fers us doors swing­ing mys­te­ri­ously shut, voices man­i­fest­ing from clean air, and im­pos­si­bly per­cus­sive thumps echo­ing down com­mon­place cor­ri­dors.

At the risk of soil­ing Mar­shall McLuhan’s mem­ory, the medium is, here, very much part of the mes­sage. Such creaks and whis­pers would sink into the ether if filmed in lush 35mm photography, on sets the size of air­craft car­ri­ers. How­ever, the sen­si­tive viewer, at­tuned to watch­ing hol­i­day ad­ven­tures and wed­ding par­ties on lower-grade video, should find the ac­cu­mu­lat­ing weird­ness that bit more re­al­is­tic when served up in a sim­i­lar man­ner. More­over, by en­cour­ag­ing his ac­tors to im­pro­vise their lines, Peli al­lows an­other layer of muddy nat­u­ral­ism to creep into the pic­ture.

Now, th­ese tech­niques are scarcely new. Over the last decade, both The Blair Witch Project and Open Wa­ter em­ployed faux-verite to em­pha­sise the creep­ing un­ease. Yet the fact that so few projects have suc­cess­fully fol­lowed in those foot­steps clar­i­fies just how dif­fi­cult it is to en­er­gise a main­stream cin­ema au­di­ence with fuzzy cam­corder shocks.

The key word here is, per­haps, “au­di­ence”. Viewed on DVD or in an un­der-pop­u­lated cin­ema, Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity might seem a lit­tle anaemic and un­struc­tured. Pre­sented be­fore a large mass of will­ing pun­ters, how­ever, it proves to be a very im­pres­sive fright­de­liv­ery sys­tem whose nec­es­sary lean­ness proves to be a gen­uine ad­van­tage.

Among the film’s mi­nor rev­e­la­tions is its re­minder that the old­est forms of su­per­nat­u­ral en­ter­tain­ment still have the power to en­gage. Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity is closer to a car­ni­val at­trac­tion – a ghost train or a geek show – than it is to a for­mally com­posed hor­ror film. Such things, when done well, still be­long in pic­ture palaces, and Peli does it very well in­deed.

They’re here! some­thing’s go­ing bump in the night

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