Saturday, 29 October 2011

Things That Go Bump in the Night: "Paranormal Activity"

Paranormal Activity was made in 2007 by first time director Oren Peli, who also wrote the outline for what would happen in the film. He filmed it in his own house over a week with actors Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat. The film centers on a couple played by Featherston and Sloat, with the same first names; Katie has been haunted by some kind of entity since she was a child and believes it has followed her to her and Micah's new house. Micah, who is much more excited than Katie is, plans to record their bedroom everynight in order to catch sight of whatever is haunting Katie. Here's something else important: Paranormal Actvity is a "found footage" film, shot with a hand held camera to make it seem as if its real footage Micah shot.

"You had to be there" may be the perfect phrase to attach to a film like Paranormal Activity. I feel there are certain films, which no matter how much you appreciate or like them, had to be experienced at a certain place in a certain time. When people were seeing this for the first time in 2007 or in 2009, when DreamWorks gave it a larger release, and had no idea what they were really in for, there was probably a sense of mystery and a "could it be..." quality to the film. When it started to become more well known and the actors started to publicity, and of course when Hollywood decided to start to make sequels every year, the mystique starts to fade, and all we're left with is just the movie. And that's probably the best way to truly judge a movie.

For me, Paranormal Activity is one of the most interesting experiments in filmmaking in some time. While it owes something to The Blair Witch Project (which I admittedly have only caught fragments of on TV), it has its own conceit, which is the static camera in Katie and Micah's room everynight, which their bed in their center of the frame, and their door to the left of the frame. It's this conceity which is probably the deal breaker for most perople. Certain hardcore horror fans may be bored, while others will genuinely be kept in suspense. For me, it worked. I loved the idea of looking in to that hallway full of darkness, not knowing what was out there and if it was possible to catch a glimpse.

While the hand held camera technique does set a certain mood that makes us feel we're in the real world, it does limit what Peli can do visually. When we think of haunted house movies, we not only think of the ghosts but of the house itself, like the Outlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining or Hill House in what I think is my favourite horror film, Robert Wise's The Haunting. While the bedroom in Paranormal Activity is certainly memorable, I couldn't help but think what Peli could have done with this house if he took a more traditional film route. I'm thinking of angles and tracking shots which could have added more creepiness to the film. Peli could still have used some hand held camera work as well as keep the static camera in the bedroom. Of course, Peli probably wanted to take a route distant from Hollywood, and I respect that. I also like when Micah investigates the hallway after disturbances in the bedroom. The way the camera swishes around made me afraid about what could come in to the frame.

It's easy to get a little frustrated when we never see the demon. You want that glimpse of something sinister after so much set up. Fortunately, the final few seconds are a great pay off. Featherston and Sloat are solid actors, convincing as a young couple slowly falling apart.

I think all effective horror movies are relatable to human psychology in some way or another. Paranormal Activity is all about fear, how people cope with it, how it becomes escapable when there is no reasonable doubt that something otherworldly is happening; it's also about how we as an audience react to these kinds of films, particularly when they're presented without any Hollywood gloss.

Paranormal Activity also relates to the feeling of being in your bed at night, hearing something going bump in the night. You tell yourself it's just your imagination. The scariest thing about Paranormal Activity is that is it it tells you it isn't just your imagination.  

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