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As Cloverfield demonstrated a couple of years back, the movie business has finally turned completely topsy-turvy. Marketing strategies and box office takes are often more talked-about than the movies they are meant to publicize. Anything that makes money, rules. In keeping with that new law, and ever since The Blair Witch Project, ambitious low-budget filmmakers have been groping for the magic lever to launch their tiny independent productions into the big time. The newest Golden Boy to emerge from the landscape is Oren Peli, a guy who made his own reality-based horror film at home for only $15,000. Pell had originally planned to spend only $10,000, but apparently costs got out of hand. 1
Paranormal Activity touched a nerve with audiences looking for the Next Big Scary Thing. I like to think that it had an "in" with millions of condominium and apartment dwellers, the ones that nightly lock themselves behind security gates and alarm systems to play with their electronic toys. When something goes "bump" in the night there's no telling what it might be. The neighbors? The plumbing? Terrorists wiring the building for explosives? In a society ever more isolated and insulated, people are easily spooked into panic mode. Nobody feels as if they're in control anymore.
In the theater Paranormal Activity carried no logo and had no credits, lowering its resemblance to ordinary movies and making viewers all the more uneasy. A disclaimer came up thanking a police department, presumably for access to the homemade tapes we are about to view. The quality of the home-grade HD image is quite good, especially when compared to the DVDCam images of the old Blair Witch film. "Micah", the star and the cameraman, either walks his HD unit around his condo or leaves it anchored on a static view of his bedroom, with a sliver of his hallway visible on the left-hand side of the screen. The image on the package-top is what viewers watch for about a quarter of the movie. This is almost the entire setting for Paranormal Activity, a suitably claustrophobic arena from which supernatural creepy crawlies slowly emerge. This hypnotic effect will either fascinate viewers or make them reach for the fast forward button. Not so fast -- the movie already does quite a bit of fast forwarding for us.
Movies that use the endistancing gimmick of a "real" source camera function on two levels simultaneously. The spooky events are supposed to be more real, because we're perceiving them through an intermediate filter, the victim's own home videos. The idea that these are essentially somebody's home movies can't erase the notion that the movie is still directed; it has to be. New Wave filmmakers adopted handheld camera techniques to affect the illusion of reality as perceived through newsreels. This newer "reality" mode is just another layer of artifice masquerading as more reality.
At least that's what it is, if you don't believe in ghosts. If we believe in the situations and the premise the distinction is quickly erased, and the "pseudo-real" camera becomes real -- we're watching reality. It's sort of the Millennial version of the epistolary novel, where the author pretends to have collated letters and official documents that tell a story, along the way convincing us we're witnessing something more than fiction prose. "Buying into" a film like Paranormal Activity doesn't indicate a lack of sophistication on the part of the viewer. We all willingly invest in screen fantasies that can't possibly be true; it's why we come to the movies. Intellectuals don't reject animated cartoons because they're "not real".
If one is suggestible on the subjects of ghosts and demons, and is even just a little receptive to the film's premise, Paranormal Activity will indeed work. Most of the movie's spooky events have happened to all of us in real life -without the confirmation that demons are in action, that is. 2
Micah tests his new video camera with the aim of recording the bedroom when he and his girlfriend Katie are asleep. Katie has felt haunted ever since she was a child, when her house burned down. Now she's convinced that something is creeping around when they sleep, making noises. Occasionally she can feel its breath. The psychic she consults responds matter-of-factly to her explanations, and quickly decides that she's being haunted not by a ghost, but a demon. She needs to consult a demon specialist, an Exorcist. (Having watched far too many spook movies, this struck this viewer as truly funny, being handed off to a colleague in this way. It's like a trip to a medical clinic.)
Micah dismisses the idea of involving outside experts, as his camera experiment will surely solve the problem. In any case, the demon expert is unavailable. Katie becomes disturbed and alienated because Micah balks at indulging her phobia, thereby making her feel more isolated and resentful. The psychic won't set foot in the house again, in fear of the powerful demon aura he perceives. So Micah and Katie must face the demon alone. The psychic said that the demon feeds on negative psychological states. If that's true, then the condo dwelling couple is preparing a banquet for their non-corporeal visitor; Katie is increasingly angered by Micah's sticking a camera in her face. Eighty minutes later, the unseen noises and poltergeist-like unexplainable events get completely out of hand, leading to an uncanny finish, all recorded on digital HD video (and conveniently edited down for our viewing pleasure).
Paranormal Activity was clearly the right movie for a nation already on the nervous edge. Sociologists point to the surge in fantastic horror films in times of societal distress -- The Great Depression, the Cold War stalemate years. Does Micah and Katie's haunting come about because of the economic meltdown? Micah is a day trader ... is he tainted with some kind of original economic sin? (actually, the film was finished well before the panic of 2008.) Despite the fact that they're a loving couple with a self-professed perfect relationship, by the judgment of some folk Micah and Katie are living in sin, which in the horror genre makes them prime targets for supernatural retribution. They also swear constantly, with the F word the fourth most frequent syllable to come from their lips. Is the demon avenging some unknown curse from the past, or is his persecution a random affair? Is the demon simply exploiting the disharmony between the characters, as the psychic suggests? Or does it just not like profane language?
This is definitely a horror movie. Since it scares audiences, there's no denying that it succeeds in its primary mission. Finished three years ago, it was pre-released by Oren Peli in the form of hundreds of DVDs. This odd chain of events paid off when Mr. Peli made a sale to Paramount for $300,000 dollars. That seems a terrific profit until one considers that Paramount's creative marketers magnified that investment into a box office take of over a hundred million dollars.
Brilliant marketing created the notion that the movie was being suppressed, fueling a viewer demand for a release. Even NPR fell for the flack bandwagon, allowing the producers to turn their news shows into a stealth EPK. The official story is that Paramount was for some time going to remake the film. "Public demand" (juiced by overbooked sneak screenings) gave the picture a terrific launch. Building the better mousetrap is swell, but it takes marketers to turn one into a major profit generator.
Paranormal Activity is definitely more accomplished than Blair Witch or an earlier, less well known reality-based horror effort called The Last Broadcast ... it's simpler, less gimmicky and requires less concentration to follow the "video games". I know producers that spent the last few years trying to beat Blair Witch at its own game, and Oren Peli has done it. There isn't really much to the movie that a second viewing will reveal -- its appeal doesn't lie in any of the traditional filmmaking crafts or skills -- but it is a competently confected flim-flam to exploit the irrational phobias of our so-called sophisticated society. As a moneymaking phenomenon, the movie is a clean job all around. 3
Paramount's plain wrap Blu-ray of Paranormal Activity has an inordinately steep price tag indicating that Paramount has its eyes on money first and foremost ... it won't take all that many sales to equal the film's original production budget! Online notes from Orin Peli hint that a special edition release is planned to double dip -- it will presumably have more cut footage and alternate endings. This 2-Disc Digital Copy Edition contains, ah, two discs and a digital copy. You will now be able to view the film on your iPhone in a haunted graveyard at midnight.
The image looks quite good, with the images from Sony's FX1 camera holding up quite well in HD. Nobody will be buying Paranormal Activity for the beautiful pictures, although the audio is more sophisticated than one would expect. In a key scene where we want to see what is happening on the floor of Micah and Katie's bedroom, the shifting blacks don't offer much cooperation. A replay on Micah's computer is required to see the spooky phenomena in action.
As mentioned above, the movie just starts when one loads the disc. After the final image is over, a quickie title card eventually comes up, followed by an endless list of what must be thousands of names of fans who had correspondence with the movie's official website. That's a rather clever (or rapacious, depending on your point of view) marketing idea too. Ostensibly thanking the fans that made the movie possible, Paramount will doubtlessly generate many, many sales from this stunt. "Look, there I am, six thousand and fifty-five names into the list. I'm finally a star!" In all fairness, if my name were on the darn thing I'd probably feel compelled to buy the disc too. Vanity knows no limits.
After all the care taken to erase most signposts acknowledging that Paranormal Activity is a fictional film like any other, the BD disc offers us an alternate earlier cut. "What, you mean this is just a movie?" A separate menu choice enables us to check out the ending of the version we didn't see in its entirety. That's it for extras. Mr. Peli is apparently still involved in the marketing effort.
The versions and alternate endings of Paranormal Activity are discussed in detail, with Oren Peli's direct input, at the IMDB's entry for Paranormal Activity. Look in the FAQ section, under "spoilers".
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Paranormal Activity Blu-ray rates:
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Unrated version, alternate ending. Digital copy.
1. Oren Peli has made a very inexpensive film that brought in an enormous profit -- for Paramount. The actual marketing "genius" came after the original filmmaker had been paid off. If Peli's plan was to propel his name and fame into the big time, he's succeeded very well. But how far ahead of the game is he really? The creators of Blair Witch weren't tapped to make larger feature films, probably because their progressive concept was considered an unrepeatable one-off. Catching the brass ring in today's corporate-driven film world guarantees little -- distribution contracts aren't exactly written in the interest of adventurous independents like Oren Peli. Paramount has probably secured sequel rights as well, so Peli can't even do a follow up movie, with Katie's girlfriend's bead-stringing hobby yielding New and Bluer Meanies from Demonville. Peli's situation reminds me of the James Cagney movie White Heat, where his fellow thieves buy a big tanker truck to rob an oil refinery. The prospective take isn't all that greater than the price of the truck. Cagney's response is to ask, "Whattaya gonna do then? Buy two more tanker trucks?" Unless someone believes that outsider Peli can spin straw into gold a second time, he's advanced himself only a couple of steps beyond square one. And he's the one independent filmmaker in a million who actually made a movie people want to see.
2. It's the truth, honest. I've only gotten the sensation a couple of times. Gore, torture and big surprises in hundreds of other pictures have never really gotten to me, at least not as an adult. Yet I felt in fear for my safety in a 1970 midnight screening of Night of the Living Dead. I've since wondered if part of the effect was being surrounded by hundreds of nervous audience members -- we appeared to fuel a communal wave of dread. A similar psychological effect struck in a few moments in Jaws ... the communal skittishness induced the idea that my life was in danger, personally. And the American version of The Ring gave me only mild shudders, almost a pleasurable replay of those older sensations. For me, it's the audience factor. I can readily picture Paranormal's success in a theater filled with receptive, happily cooperative scaredy-cats.
Then again, some people think Paranormal Activity is more effective viewed at home, alone. I can relate to that as well, as a couple of my most satisfactory horror viewing experiences were at home ... staying up until the Hour of the Wolf to see a 1973 broadcast of The Seventh Victim, for instance. Yet that sensation was more of a lonely, empty feeling, an existential dread.
Like most modern "hurry up and wait" horror ordeals, Peli's film was for me personally a long test of patience. And I liked the cast and the acting -- all except the smug spiritualist. The film endorses his entire line of ghostbusting BS.
I can't say that being in a live, nervous audience for Paranormal Activity wouldn't have made a difference in my reaction. Watching a silent comedy in an auditorium filled with laughing people is definitely infectious. The movies we love are the ones we experience for the first time in the company of hundreds of enraptured strangers.
3. More bloggish subjective explanations for this reviewer's reaction to Paranormal Activity, that I don't expect readers to share: I'm militantly resistant to horror films that insist that we believe in their supernatural content. I guess that I'm concerned that so many people (according to polls) consider themselves rational, yet believe wholeheartedly in irrational things like ghosts and spirits, pyramid power, auras, whatever. It's clear that many, many viewers of Paranormal Activity subscribe to its premise, and more of them than I would like to think about probably take it as the gospel truth. I'm sufficiently conservative to feel that this phenomenon is psychologically and socially unhealthy.
I can see Paramount rejecting one of the film's alternate endings to avoid possible moral culpability. Who wants to hear news accounts of unstable Paranormal Activity fans, carried away by the ending, killing or mutilating themselves? Of course, the subliminal CGI effect in the last few frames of the replacement ending really sounds like something Spielberg would come up with ... a bravura supernatural mini-frisson. It reminds me a bit of the 'angels' turning demonic in the finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
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