Major chills in mini-budgeted ‘Paranormal’
“Paranormal Activity” proves there is a sucker born every minute, and I mean that in the happiest way possible, because I admire this spooky, creepy, genuinely dread-inducing film. And I am in awe of the marketing geniuses at Paramount, who have transformed a $15,000, shot-in-one-week wonder into an Internet and box-office phenomenon, and the most fan-hyped horror hit since the similarly camcorded and micro-budgeted “The Blair Witch Project.” (Expect a similar backlash, too.)
“You did it! We hit 1,000,000 demands!” trumpets the official Web site, ParanormalMovie.com, which flatters the fan by claiming the movie is “The First-Ever Major Film Release Decided by You,” thanks to the million-plus horror buffs who have clicked onto the site’s “Demand it!” link. William Castle — the horror producer who wired movie seats to produce electrical jolts during screenings of “The Tingler” in 1959 — would be proud.
As of Thursday morning, “3,463 people are demanding ‘Paranormal Activity’ in Memphis metro area,” according to the Web site. As of this morning, they have their wish: “Paranormal Activity” opens today at the DeSoto Cinema 16, the Cordova Cinema and The Paradiso, one week after a sold-out midnight sneak preview at the Studio on the Square during the Indie Memphis Film Festival.
Having attended that screening, which was punctuated with gasps, the occasional scream, and nervous as well as contrarian laughter, I can testify that “Paranormal Activity” probably works best as a communal experience, with a sympathetic audience eager to feel icy fingers on its spine. An exercise in anticipation and anxiety, with few visual shocks, the movie requires the collaboration of the viewer, and an investment of imagination; it’s a campfire ghost story, with the light flickering from the screen instead of from a pile of burning kindling.
Shot by writer-director Oren Peli in 2006 and arriving in theaters almost exactly a decade after the wide release of “Blair Witch,” “Paranormal Activity” is built upon an ingenious conceit: As in “Blair Witch,” the movie is presented as a “found” work of art, a documentary constructed from the video recorded on a simple, mostly hand-held camera by the film’s two main characters, who believe that a ghost or demon may be haunting their modern, split-level San Diego starter home, an Everyplace of 21st-century generic drabness, complete with sectional sofa, black pleather couch and big-screen TV.
The woman in the movie’s “engaged to be engaged” couple is Katie (Katie Featherston), an English major studying to be a teacher and apparently the vector of the haunting; she is a believer, and she’s scared. The man is the initially skeptical Micah (Micah Sloat), who brings the camera home as something of an unwelcome surprise for Katie. Micah declares the early video evidence of the supernatural to be “cool,” and unwisely taunts the alien presence in the house. “Demons suck,” he asserts, looking through a book of medieval woodcuts — a prop that is one of the film’s few nods to horror-movie convention.
Micah is a day trader, we are told, but the camera he loves never leaves the house or backyard. This enhances the movie’s claustrophobic impact; the existence of the outside world is confirmed only by TV and Internet connections and by a few friendly visits, including one from a psychic (Mark Fredrichs) who — like a general practitioner recommending an allergist — gives the couple a referral to a demonologist.
“Most of the activity’s in here,” the psychic comments when he enters the couple’s bedroom, in what qualifies as the movie’s only double entendre. In fact, Peli’s canniest decision was to restrict most of the scary moments to the location that is traditionally the most vulnerable and intimate in any home.
When it’s bedtime, Micah sets the camera on a tripod in a corner of the room; the stationary image that fills the screen contains the bed with the couple on the right and an open doorway that gives a view down a dark hallway on the left. These two focal points are just far enough apart to require the viewer’s eyes to move back and forth, which contributes to our unease as we wait for something — anything — to happen. When the silence (there is no music score, thank goodness) is interrupted by a sudden thud in the night, the effect is scarier than a beheading in a “Saw” sequel.
Like “Blair Witch,” “Paranormal Activity” is something of a one-trick pony (one-trick poltergeist?). Unlike such artful studio ghost stories as the classic “The Haunting” (1963), the movie — with its simple, spare, sometimes accidental
compositions — may not repay multiple viewings, when its shocks and its climax are familiar. (The current ending, which apparently is somewhat less subtle than the ones tried out during the movie’s early festival screenings, allegedly was suggested by celebrity fan Steven Spielberg.)
Despite its then state-of-the-ugly-art wobblecam storytelling strategy, there is a certain timeless, metaphorical resonance to “The Blair Witch Project,” a narrative about clueless young Americans entering an uncomprehended ancient landscape with no direction home and no exit strategy. It’s an idea that connects “Young Goodman Brown” to “Apocalypse Now.”
“Paranormal Activity,” in contrast, seems more consciously modern in theme than “Blair Witch,” even if its haunted-house premise is as old as the first cave dwelling. “Maybe we shouldn’t have the camera?” Katie asks at one point, raising the interesting if undeveloped notion that the plugged-in generation’s endless self-regard and intentional surrendering of privacy invites discontent, disruption, even disaster. As an exasperated Jeff Tweedy told the camera-brandishing concertgoers at the Wilco show Saturday night at the Orpheum: “You don’t have to document everything .”
Cracking up: Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat find fright in their “starter” home.