Sunday, 28 March 2010

Paranormal Activity (2007)

Country: USA

Paranormal Activity is the latest in an increasingly long line of films to harness the realistic properties of the video camera. The mobility, shakiness, flatness of image and the naturalistic lighting give a greater illusion of reality than the warmth and depth of 35 millimetre film. But a film like this is not content to simply capture a sense of reality on screen, but like The Blair Witch Project (1999) before it saw fit to take the fabrication to a higher plane by suggesting the material seen in the film was found footage. Unfortunately the grainy home movie material is as much an indication of the opposite. This is a trick that has now been played to death. The use of non actors adds to the illusion, as does the lack of credits at the beginning and the end of the film, but the test of such a proposition is whether such a technique can be extended for the duration of the film - and the answer of course is no. The director Oren Peli uses a number of straightforward and predictable formal devices to create tension and suspension. Devices and modes which would not be apparent in the amateur documentary footage of two individuals terrified out of their wits by spectral visitations.

The film is virtually plot less as we follow the efforts of Katie and Micah to get to the bottom of the mysterious nocturnal events that have been plaguing them in recent weeks. In order to do this Micah invests in a video camera (the lesson of these films seems to be if it hasn’t been filmed it doesn’t exist) and we are then subjected to forty minutes of slow build up and contrived efforts on Micah’s part to make sure the camera still rolls. One of the weaknesses of these films is the need to constantly have the camera recording. Naturally Katie begins to be unsettled by the constant probing of the camera and becomes convinced that the arrival of the camera has only increased the paranormal activity. For the first half of the film you might ask what activity? Some footsteps here and there and a few bangs is pretty much all we get. A cliché ridden encounter with a psychic (Mark Fredrichs) reveals that not only does Katie have a history of such events, but that it is a demon rather than a ghost.

A certain amount of tension is generated by the regular night vision shots of the couples bedroom. These occur throughout and indicate that something is about to happen. The activity steadily builds (the build to a climax is another indicator that narrative form is being adhered too) toward a tempo of increasing violence. But instead of becoming unbearable these sequences become the only thing too look forward to. Katie and Micah’s relationship deteriorates due to the constant tension and exhaustion of the situation, but more specifically due to Micah’s half arsed efforts to solve the problem himself. One such disastrous attempt involves a Ouija board, though it does afford the film one of its creepiest moments as the demon makes a mess of the board. Naturally the characters remain totally under developed, though we get a little back story for Katie, we are never given the childhood backdrop to her earlier encounters with the demon. Micah meanwhile remains a totally blank slate. This lack of depth is probably an attempt by the director to maintain the reality of the piece (after all why would a couple in a relationship need to discuss their backgrounds to camera) but this just gives Peli an opportunity to avoid the headache of character development.

If there is a moral to the film it is don’t bring a video camera into the equation. Which is a rather perverse statement considering that without it such a film wouldn’t be possible. But it is fairly clear by the final scene that Micah is being punished for his obsession with technology. The camera is as much to blame for their fractious relationship as the demonic visitor. The final moments spiral headlong into the territory of the possession narrative and is a further contrivance in a film overflowing with them. The limited set (the film doesn’t leave Katie and Micah’s house) adds a nice sense of claustrophobia but Paranormal Activity is a gimmick film which will probably let a lot of people down. Its importance lies in the means of its production (a budget of $15,000), its distribution (the importance of the website and the dissemination of evidence to suggest the events are true) and its reception (whether people are willing to buy into the fabrication or see right through it). This might have become a very important horror film if The Last Broadcast (1998) and The Blair Witch Project hadn’t already done it over a decade before.

© Shaun Anderson 2010

1 comment:

  1. I saw this in theaters, enjoyed it the first time, because theres some tense moments in there, and it plays with that whole idea of demons and invisible spiritual forces, people really eat up that stuff.

    But I watched it a second time, and it was such a bore! This film is the kind youll enjoy only the first time, and hasnt much re-watch value.

    Still, gotta give em kudos for doing it with so little money, thats commendable!


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