My notes on Paranormal Activity.
This may be Blair Witch: The Next Generation, but it’s also The Entity sung to the tune of Open Water. Like Blair Witch (and Cloverfield), it’s presented as found footage, with logos blurred on products seen around the house and long takes to represent material shot by the protagonists or from a pre-set camera as they try to cope with an initially low-key haunting.
It begins in media res, since obviously the first stirrings of something disturbing have prompted ‘day-trader’ Micah (Micah Sloat) – pronounced Mee-kah – to buy an expensive camera (with attached light) in an attempt to work out what exactly is happening in the house he shares with student Katie (Katie Featherston). At first, it’s a matter of noises at night, doors creaking slightly, keys found on the floor when they were left on a table and other, easily-rationalised incidents – but Katie, whose house burned down when she was a child, admits that these things have always happened to her, which puts a crack in her relationship since she hasn’t mentioned it before. The couple squabble about what to do – with Micah relying on the camera and eventually going against Katie’s wishes by getting a ouija board in the hope of communicating with the presence, and Katie keen on calling in a psychic Micah regards as a fraud in a vain attempt at getting it all to stop. The psychic (Mark Fredrichs) is fairly useless, diagnosing the presence of a demon as opposed to a ghost (his specialty) and recommending a demonologist who is out of the country when Katie finally prevails on Micah to call him in; when the original psychic is called back, he’s amazingly unhelpful, insisting that he can’t be in the house a moment longer, and running off from the bad scene, leaving the troubled couple to fend for themselves.
Among the things caught by the camera is a sleepwalking episode Katie has no memory of the next morning, and after that the demon gets more aggressive – though the haunting is still a matter of thumps and lights turned on and off and sheets pulled off the bed rather than the explicit assaults and clawings usually seen in these films. A half-burned photograph of Katie as a child is found in the loft of the house, and it ends (in this revised version of a film that’s been in the works for some time) with a sudden shock, a sinister smile (an infallible symptom of possession) and a blunt caption. Like Blair Witch, it’s not going to work for everyone: the manifestations are tame beside the Amityville/Evil Dead/Poltergeist-style supernatural lightshow rowdiness usually found in haunting movies, or even the closer-in-tone spookery of The Sixth Sense or the Grudge/Ring pictures. However, an audience willing to go with it will be creeped out: the haunting is presented in such a matter-of-fact manner that a door moving, footprints appearing in talcum powder or a sheet being tugged can elicit intakes of breath and even the odd scream. Long, static shots of the couple’s bedroom, with a timecode, encourage the eye to look at corners of the frame – and there’s inventive use of fast-forward, which is especially creepy when the possessed Katie gets up in the middle of the night and stands still for an unnatural length of time.
The unfamiliar actors are thoroughly convincing, and manage to convey a complicated relationship which – like the horrors – is quite often taking place offscreen. Early on, there are jokes as Micah hints that he’d like to use the bedroom camera for more than ghost-hunting – and his job, like Willem Dafoe in Antichrist, is to represent controlling male rationalism at its least tactful: but the point is not that he doesn’t believe the evidence, but that he’s more interested than scared. Katie has a long history with this presence which is never fully drawn-out (we meet her sister – one of the few other onscreen characters – but she doesn’t tell any more about their childhood experiences, and their parents aren’t around to be in the plot) but is, from the start, familiar enough with it to be properly frightened. Directed and written by Oren Peli; though – like Snuff or the purest Dogme films – this has no onscreen credits, all the better to sell the authenticity.
Graham Barnfield The Entity got a rare outing on Film4 last night, to help people with that comparison.
Dan Stephens Great review Kim. Although I agree “it’s not going to work for everyone: the manifestations are tame beside the Amityville/Evil Dead/Poltergeist-style supernatural lightshow”, it’s these silly, over-the-top creations of the supernatural that lose the film credibility and the ability to scare. One of the best scenes in Amityville – when those eyes appear at the window – is simple and effective. That’s probably why I have an affection for Blair Witch and now Paranormal Activity – how lots of things happen but their paranormal basis is only routed in whether you want to believe it or not. Seeing lots of ghosts walk around the living room floor leaves nothing to be desired in Poltergeist – even though I love the film.
Incidentally, I lent my Mum (who loves paranormal horror films) The Entity on DVD. After she watched it she said she hadn’t been scared as much since 1973 (and The Exorcist!)
Karen Krizanovich Wait til you see Fourth Kind…
Kim Newman I did, on Friday. Sumerian-speaking owls are out to get us all, apparently. Or maybe only Alaskans.
Dan Stephens Haha…I’d totally forgotten Blair Witch had sequels!
Colette Balmain I am one of the few people that is not keen on Blair Witch, but it is just a matter of personal taste. However I am looking forward to Paranormal Activity. One of my ex-students thought it was “real”!
Jonathan Stover I enjoyed the first Blair Witch, though my suspension of disbelief got slightly dented by a friend who pointed out that the two old guys fishing towards the start of the film are doing so in about two inches of water. The ‘In Search Of’ style hour-long fake documentary that ran on the SciFi Channel to promote Blair Witch was, I thought, actually scarier.
Gene Thomas Turlington Jr. I agree about the documentry, that is why they did the two pack vhs set and it is a special feature on the dvd. The documentary was way creepier.
Colette Balmain I saw “Paranormal Activity” the other day and have mixed views on it. I thought the relationship between the couple was believable, but the shocks were few and far between. I didn’t like the ending, it was too predictable. I will be interested to see the “original” ending when it is on DVD release. I preferred it to Blair Witch, although I think conceptually and cinematically Blair Witch is the better film. However, the group behind me shrieked all the way through, and I have a friend that had nightmares after seeing it.
Jonathan Stover Has anyone seen The Last Broadcast, aka the Jersey Devil Blair Witch Project that came out a year or two before TBWP? I keep meaning to track that down.
Colette Balmain I think that The Last Broadcast is the best film of the three, well worth a watch!