I read about this film a while back when it played at the Sydney International Film Festival, and was quite excited by the potential of the premise, and will admit to having those enthusiasms fostered by the marketing campaign. Trailers of audiences being frightened, a healthy 'underdog triumphant' hyperbole, and the yearning for a good ole fashioned ghost story, I was hooked. It feels like ages since I saw a film that was purely scary; not sickening violent ('Hostel'/ the 'Saw' sequels), or harrowing ('Martyrs') and disturbing ('Eden Lake' ) but spooky, atmospheric, creepy. I'm thinking about Robert Wise 'Haunting', Tourneur's 'Night of the Demon', Hideo Nakata's original 'Ringu', Hell...even 'The Exorcist'...films in that vein.
Shame that I didn't leave as exuberance that I went into the theatre with. Not that the film is a total failure, but it is disappointing. Writer/ Director Oren Peli has subscribed to the classic 'stage play' format of most no-to-low budget films: small cast, a handful of locations; in this case the many rooms and the backyard of a two storey house in suburban home where young couple Kate and Michah live. ( In a stroke of potential post-post-post-modernism the actors playing the couple share the same names ). This is a welcome stroke, the chance to be immersed, and trapped, with the familiar, returning the 'horror' to the domestic and ordinary.
The core problem I have with the film is that Peli opted to use the subjective form throughout, via Micah's recently purchased digital camera. Within a few spare moments Micah ( for Peli ) establishes himself, the set/location, and ventures outside to greet Katie as she arrives home, offering the one and only shot of the suburban world exterior to their home, and the tension already creeping into their relationship. Top work, so far , so good. Hitchcock's axiom of telling the story with the pictures is served well. The problem after this is how to create the logic to maintain the subjective perspective. The 'found footage' genre in one that can require considerable suspension of belief for the verisimilitude to work. More-often-not the publicity campaign serves to consolidate the verisimilitude, while the film undoes it. The Spanish film '[Rec]' is probably one of the most successful attempts ( I haven't seen the US version, 'Quarantine' but I figured it would be no different ), along with 'The Blair Witch Project', the point-of-origin for this style, whereas Romero's 'Diary of the Dead' constantly courted a lack of logic, and 'Cloverfield' coloured a large canvas, cleverly detailing character with the conceit of the taped-over footage, and using sheer spectacle to overwhelm the viewer . The ultimate flaw with this style is that the audience is always going to want to shout at the fuckwit waggling the camera , for waggle and wave it about they are wont to do, to either stop wobbling the frame all over the shop, and/ or drop the bloody thing and get the Hell out of there. Maybe it's just me...
Peli allows plenty of time for the performers to exhibit their characters, all the while very little is happening, and the needle slips into a groove. Initial conversations rather awkwardly cement Micah's motives for buying the camera, and shreds the gears as Katie references her 'haunted past'. A visit from a psychic opens the characters wider, mostly Katie as she offers pages of exposition, and in turn the film begins to collapse before anything has really happened. Her childhood experiences of her haunting are vague, not particularly eerie in the re-telling, and aren't extrapolated enough to create a decent foundation for the story to settle onto. From the start it is assumed she knows what is happening, if not necessarily why, so her anecdotes don't serve to foreshadow some greater reveal. A clue come in the form of a 'found object' but that adds little. The net result is a pendulous patchwork of tedious talk and the film's trump card; the night sequences.
This film will always be remembered for these sequences, wide-angled master shots of the young couple's room, cool blue and black, and the doorway leading to the landing beyond. This is the sort of shot that David Lynch would frame, full of static tension, creating an unease, and an impatience for something to actually happen. I constantly found my attention drawn away from the sleeping couple to the darkness beyond the doorway. The last 30 minutes or so, as the presence begins to escalate it's campaign and reign of terror, becomes more akin to the experience I wanted. Real time / fright time. There is a trite, tired feeling to matters though, as if Peli sat down and wrote a list of all the 'ghost' related phenomena he could think of and put them into the script. One sequence with a Ouija board feels extraneous and unnecessarily 'common', and seemingly outside the rules he has established with 'the presence'. This in turn leads to another rather feeble convenient discovery of evidence that falls flat, a convenient website history of similar phenomena, that becomes something of a cul-de-sac.
The big blow is that ultimately this should have worked. It pained me watching it, churning bitter thoughts of self-resent that this is something I should be doing. Perhaps a different approach to the story-telling, dropping the subjectivity, opting for intimate objective filming, cut with the often frightening night sequence footage, could stretch the film beyond the limitations of Peli's choices, and occasionally clunky text, and imploding characterisation. Keeping the story focused on only the house, and the couple in that context, works well; we know they are tired, frightened, struggling with their outside lives, and themselves, bickering and blowing up, and melting down. The performances maintain a level of 'normality' to them, yet often risking lapsing into the banal. The second appearance of the psychic nearly had me in stitches, feeling as if it should have been Woody Allen, or Larry David, walking in going 'I can't do this right now...' before illuminating a bunch of excuses, and exiting urgently.
A solid premise with such a simple idea, that should have been so much, so much, better.
'Paranormal Activity' stands as a good rough draft that deserved the remount that was originally slated. Eschewing the phantasmagoria of 'Poltergeist' and the melodrama of 'The Amityville Horror' ( another story of a haunting pitched as rooted in truth ), 'Paranormal Activity' has it's own presence and identity, it's just not enough. With a better, tighter, more impactful script, the film would have been a more satisfying experience, rather being remembered as the little film that blew it. Made for a miniscule sum, and profiting a massive gross inexcess of $100 million Peli is in a enviable position now, and I hope he can grow from from the strengths of this film, and deliver a superior succesor.
As I said earlier, 'Paranormal Activity' will leave an impression with the monochromatic moodiness of the night sequences, that certainly manage to raise a couple of great chills. They were well worth the price of admission ( $18!!!! Now that was truly horrifying. )