Saturday, October 24, 2009

Paranormal Activity

A young couple being haunted by a demon decide to document their experiences on their video camera. The movie takes the form of their footage, and it's essentially them playing Scooby-Doo, exploring things that go bump in the night.

Something about the trailers for Paranormal Activity rubbed me the wrong way. It looked like something I would hate. Part of it was the "found footage" gimmick, I didn't like it 10 years ago when The Blair Witch Project tried it, and (with the notable exception of REC/Quarantine) I haven't liked it since. Part of it was the way they tried to pretend like it was true or based on the truth, I really hate that kind of shit. Do people really fall for that bullshit? And of course I'm sure a large part of it was my own well documented biases against the haunted house genre.

Well, although I don't think the movie is ultimately successful, I'm happy to report that I didn't hate it, and even have respect for its (minimal) achievements. Much like Blair Witch, the film's strongest point is its cast. The charm of the actors far outstrips any of the events of the film. The leads make a credible couple and, considering how much of the movie they spend bickering, both come off as likable and sympathetic.

Most of the fun in Paranormal Activity is in the anticipation. The characters investigate a strange noise or whatever in their house, and it's not so much what they find that's theoretically scary as the build-up to it, when you don't know what the hell is going on. I didn't find myself getting too scared (although it was clear that a good chunk of the audience felt otherwise), but I must admit feeling a little anxiety during one sequence, involving the boyfriend sticking his head up into the attic. And hell, most horror movies don't generate any suspense at all, so the fact that Paranormal Activity worked for about 5 minutes for me is not something I'm going to discount.

The problem is that most of the other similar sequences weren't effective, and too often downright unconvincing or underwhelming. (Repetitive too, there's only so many sequences you can watch of people waking up in the night to investigate a strange noise before it gets boring.) It's not as bad as Cloverfield, where the unconvincing special effects clashed horribly with the verite style of the filming, but there's a similar cognitive dissonance in many sequences. The most distracting example is the sound design. The presence of the demon is represented on the soundtrack by a low, rumbling bass noise. It's a kind of sound I've heard used effectively in many horror films, the problem being that it sounds designed and recorded, not like an ambient noise you would actually hear in someone's house. It's supposed to be diegetic, but it doesn't sound that way, and it pulled me out of the film every time.

I maybe could have given this one a pass, except that I have a problem with films that are 99% buildup if the pay-off is no good. And let it be said that Paranormal Activity has an infuriatingly crappy payoff; brief, unconvincing and feckless.

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