Ma­jor chills in mini-bud­geted ‘Para­nor­mal’

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Go See - By John Bei­fuss

bei­fuss@com­mer­cialap­peal.com

“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 .”

Para­mount Pic­tures

Crack­ing up: Katie Feather­ston and Micah Sloat find fright in their “starter” home.

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