Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Friday, November 13, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

This is a movie positively buried in hype and William Castle-styled promotion. All that's missing are flying skeletons and insurance policies for "death by fright". Somewhere under all the exclamation exists the movie itself simple and unadorned. It's a home video shot in the director's actual home with a pair of unknown but enthusiastic actors. So, expect less and you will appreciate it more. The film isn't particularly unique or even very well made. But first time writer-director Oren Peli has just enough skill to keep the movie grounded in a faux reality. Like many previous indie film successes, it makes strengths out of its limitations. Bad sound, low res images, and zero production values are the right aesthetics if the goal is "realism". After all, "real" is as much a convention of cinema as any other. The audience "reads" bad lighting, shaky camerawork and muffled sound as signifiers of cinema verite.

Of course in the subgenre of "Docu-Horror", the desired effect of this aesthetic is the illusion of "unscripted reality". The idea is to place the supernatural right next to the natural in order to get you to believe the impossible. An open acknowledgement of the recording device is part of the ploy. The fourth wall is broken; someone is shooting this right now so it must be real. Done reasonably well, this format can make the most cliched stories seem new. Cloverfield demonstrated that even Godzilla could learn new tricks. The trouble with Paranormal Activity is that it doesn't even have the old ones mastered.

The "story" is both too much and too little at the same time, with no awareness of how classic ghost stories play with shifting realities. The basic situation has day trader Micah (Micah Sloat)videotaping he and his fiancee' Katie (Katie Featherston)in an attempt to catch a ghost on tape. A ghost that has been haunting Katie since she was a child. When they consult a psychic (Mark Friedrichs) things begin to get a lot worse. He tells them that the spirit isn't a ghost per se but rather a demon. The film then chronicles a series of increasingly violent attacks on them while they sleep at night.

At first Paranormal Activity seemed like it was going to be more like Cloverfield and less like its obvious model, The Blair Witch Project. Cloverfield took the "found footage" concept and gave a few seconds of thought as to how that form could be used to its best advantage. Drew Goddard (Alias, Buffy) and company came up with several clever storytelling devices most notably the idea that the footage being watched was TAPED OVER a previous recording of the protagonists' first date at Coney Island. This allowed for a poignant epilogue showing the lovers alive in better times and with the added bonus of J.J. Abrams' trademarked touch of mystery through the final frames depicting something unknown falling into the water behind them.

Next to the wit and sophistication of form in the monster flick, Paranormal Activity seems positively juvenile. The low budget is simply not an excuse for bad design. The film is like a crayon drawing made by a talented child. The instincts are right but the execution is completely naive.

The film is presented as an edited assembly of "found footage" given to the producers by the San Diego police. Right off the bat the film wastes the opportunity to playfully exploit its form. Acknowledging that the movie is an edited version of reality potentially allows for some very interesting ambiguity between what transpires onscreen and the "story" that the editor has decided to construct from it. Peli acknowledges this through the use of judicious fade outs, dates added in post production, and several moments when the recording is played back in fastforward. But all of this is merely functional and the concept is never used for storytelling or for creating dread and fear. Just imagine the possibilities a more creative filmmaker would've explored. If Peli was OK with fastforwarding the recording, he could also have rewound it as well and allowed us a second look at certain mysterious images. Like those creepy ghost photos and videos we've all seen, these images could also be freeze framed and blown up to show frightening entities "hidden" within mundane moments. Clearly if you have ever seen the famous Three Men and a Baby ghost you know exactly what I am talking about. I can still remember the chill that ran up my spine the first time my friends and I freezed that frame on the VCR.

The following is one you've probably seen:

There are also missed opportunities involving the turning on and off of the camera. The film's best opportunity for this is during the "time out" Micah takes to have sex with Katie. The camera is turned off and when it comes back on Peli doesn't exploit the fact that something could've happened that we did not see, something that could create a stronger sense of ambiguity in our minds about Katie's mental state perhaps. Most interestingly it could be something very important that we finally understand during the climax.

Dramatically the film is badly damaged from the beginning. Starting the story in "Act Two" is clearly the work of a neophyte screenwriter. When the film begins there is already an understanding between the two of them that there is some kind of presence haunting Katie. This isn't set up at all. Within minutes a psychic arrives to listen to Katie turn into Captain Exposition and tell us the story of her past in the most boring manner possible. Even Dan Brown has more skill than this. The correct way to do this is to change the story so that it begins in a more mundane reality with Micah perhaps annoying the hell out of her through his obsession with taping everything. Slowly, we are presented with strange incidents which seem to defy rational explanation (but, importantly, could still be explained). Micah sees that Katie seems to be more frightened than she should be by these incidents, that they seem to have a special meaning to her. This forces him to confront her about her "secret" and a much better scene for the actors to play so that she has to confess her strange past to him. THEN we can bring in the psychic and the idea that it's a demon that is plaguing them. Micah would then be the audience surrogate throughout and his conversion from skeptic to terrified believer would be the structure.

The traditional ghost story is a form that has stood the test of time and there is no doubt that Peli studied this to some extent. He does a good enough job with the later stages of it so the film comes to a reasonably satisfying conclusion. What he misses is several beats in the first half that would get the audience worked up into a much more frightened state and make the ending really work. Creating an ambiguity about Katie's mental health would give the middle of the film more tension and it's the middle of this film that truly drags. Having Katie walk out of the room and not return for hours on end would create tension as to what she is doing at night. Things that are discovered the following morning but seem increasingly impossible for a young woman to do by herself. So the film can begin to create tension with ambiguity. Is there a demon? Is she insane, or is she possesed?

Basically, Peli only seems able to come up with HALF of a good idea throughout the film. He very smartly creates a widescreen frame of them sleeping at night and leaves it running for quite a while until the audience begins to scan every corner and pixel of that image. But he then leaves it at that. Any horror filmmaker worth his salt would know that the following image is a perfect Volleyball set for a spike.

Drawing the attention to the door at the left and letting the audience hang in silent apprehension would easily allow for a huge SCARE by having the lamp at the far RIGHT next to Micah either come on, fall over, or blow out. Any one of those choices would be a textbook way of having the scene still be realistic in terms of the surveillance framing and yet accomplish the main goal of a film called Paranormal Activity which I must assume is to frighten.

The performances by the two leads are decent. The problem lies in the use of improvisation to create the "reality" so needed for this to work. The failure in many of these "docu-horrors" is in allowing the actors to be interesting when all they need to be is believable. We don't need Second City alums here. Actors want to be seen as clever and witty at all times and this kind of improv leaves the door open for phoniness. The scenes between Katie and Micah often seem like acting exercises played directly for the camera instead of conversations overheard or caught on tape. The right approach would be to force them to talk about the most mundane subjects. "What's for dinner?" "Are we going to your parents this year for Thanksgiving" etc.

The fear factor is, of course, all that matters. But here Your Mileage May Vary. Depends on how scared you get looking at people sleeping and shadows creeping. I found it all mildly suspenseful. I also do not think that demons have footprints. But that is a whole different argument.

CAST:Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Friedrichs, Amber Armstrong


Anonymous said...

"Mildly entertaining?"

Critics...I'd like to see you put something "mildly entertaining" together.

Brian said...

That's what people always say when they disagree with the critic but I think my points are quite valid. I think the film was OK for what it is. As a direct to DVD title it would be a decent flick. However, as a Dreamworks released blockbuster its success is mostly the work of a marketing team. The film is certainly no classic and will probably face the kind of backlash that BLAIR WITCH has received over the years. That is unfortunate as it is better than that. But still not as good as some say.

Ken said...

I enjoyed reading this review but disagree with its main contentions. Film criticism is a bit more subjective than, say, physics, but one way to measure the success of a movie of this type is by its effect on an audience. Rarely--and this is coming from someone who, if nothing else, knows fright films--have I seen more genuine screams, seat jumping, and expletive hurling from patrons than I did during the screening of this movie.
Whether or not this film will be considered a classic remains to be seen, although it should be mentioned that many movie buffs today, despite the mentioned backlash, do put earlier effective docu-horror attempts, such as BLAIR WITCH and THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, in that category.

I thought the framing device worked well. The "man obsessed with his camera" idea would eventually be forced to shift to the "let's document this weird shit" focus anyway, or the constant camera carrying would strain credulity.

I must also speak up for the performances in this movie, which are far better, I believe, than that implied in this review. As also noted by Roger Ebert, never once did I feel these players were "acting." They were behaving as real people probably would in the impossible situations depicted. Of how many movies can you say this?

I do agree that an astute viewer, particularly one with some "creature features" background, can tell exactly where this movie is heading, and this will of course subtract from the suspense. But as someone so desensitized to horror that he has not had a "jump scare" since seeing SALEM'S LOT as a kid, I appreciate and admire what was acheived here.

Not surprisingly, a few inventive individuals have again far surpassed what the comparative dunderheads in Hollywood can produce. Long live the George Romeros of the world. Long live Herk Harvey's CARNIVAL OF SOULS. And long live PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.

claire said...

while i think that everyone is entitled to their own opinions, and that your review makes some valid points, i don't like some of your arguments eg. "Any one of those choices would be a textbook way of having the scene still be realistic in terms of the surveillance framing and yet accomplish the main goal..."
isn't the point of this film that it isn't a conventional movie? even if it does have some similarities to other ghost stories, it doesn't mean that tired and overused techniques such as your idea of a flickering lamp need to be used. that's the kind of thing an audience would expect, and the effect is eerier without such cliches.

Brian said...

Thank you for your comments, Ben and Claire. I can see that the film worked for both of you in a way it did not for me. On a basic level, I simply did not find the movie scary. I did not even find it suspenseful. It seemed very predictable to me and contrary to what you have said, Claire, I think it is actually a very conventional movie. It just depends on what conventions we are talking about.

Compared to a Hollywood movie, I agree, it is completely unconventional in its form and content. Shot on video, no music score, minimalist aesthetic etc. But in terms of the current subgenre of docuhorrors, it is extremely conventional and uninspired. It doesn't even go one step beyond BLAIR WITCH in terms of cinematic craft and in some ways BLAIR was much more complex in terms of form through the use of mixed media-the Hi-8mm video and 16mm black and white film that kept disorienting viewers with different versions of reality being presented back to back.

I was not arguing for the film to be more conventional at all on its own terms. The reason I brought up cliched concepts such as the lamp is that mixing more conventional horror film devices within the context of a new and uber-realistc form would create a very interesting and more original effect on the viewer if handled with care. The way that Lars Von Trier re-energized the most sentimental soap opera elements in BREAKING THE WAVES by simply shooting all of it like a documentary and having the actors underplay. There was a shock of regognition mixed with a new verismilitude. As for the lamp gag, there's no reason why that wouldn't be effective AND believable in the context of the movie. In fact, many paranormal stories deal with the idea that mysterious entities often affect power sources in some way. It's also no more cliched or absurd than the idea that the demon makes footprints. I thought it might be the ghost of Bigfoot.

I want to be clear. I did not HATE the movie. I just think that it's extremely overrated. It's a very rudimentary version of many movies that have already been made and in many ways seems like a complete rip off of Amanda Gusack's IN MEMORIUM which in itself was more clever by using surveillace cameras all over the house.

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