Friday, December 25, 2009

Paranormal Activity

I was standing in line at my very first film festival, the Pusan International Film Festival in Korea. I was in line to purchase a ticket for a Russian film. An English-speaking Korean saw me and asked me if I wanted to purchase a ticket from her that she did not want. I took a glance at my notebook, in which I had written down the films that interested me. “Paranormal Activity,” I mentioned to her. She had one ticket, and sold it to me. Perhaps I simply should have just watched the Russian film.
“Paranormal Activity” is the scariest movie ever made. I am not being hyperbolic in any sense: I have never been more afraid in my life than I was while watching this movie.
By now, the creation of the movie is legendary. Oren Peli, a game designer, directed the film in his own house (the man must be insane[1]) for a budget of $11,000 and a schedule of one week. Instead of being released immediately, it sat around for two years until a DVD was shown to Steven Spielberg. After Spielberg viewed the film, he shockingly found himself locked in his own room and could not leave until a locksmith could rescue him. He returned to the studio with the DVD in a trash bag and claimed the DVD was haunted. The only offer from the studio though, was for Peli to redo the film with a bigger budget. But after viewers began to leave the theatre from being too afraid, the studio decided to market the film in college towns at midnight showings and encourage them to “demand” the film to be shown in their area.
The film’s premise centers on a young happy couple, Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston (these are the actor’s actual names). Micah is enjoying a very nice salary, though it is not thoroughly explained doing what. Katie is a college student majoring in English. It is briefly and quickly explained that bizarre events are taking place in their home. Micah decides to purchase a video camera and expensive recording equipment to document what takes place at night, and, much in the style of “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield,” the film is shot like a mockumentary, and this film does it in a way that makes the images appear so much more authentic. It is also revealed that this paranormal force is probably not a ghost, but instead a demon that has been periodically haunting Katie throughout her entire life. The events initially presented in the film are impressive but spooky at best. It then goes through a crescendo to scary, but a fun scary.
Among the scariest moments are the experiments Micah involves themselves in, despite warnings from an expert not to provoke anger from the demon, among them purchasing a Ouija board which the demon leaves in a fiery mess, powdery footprints leading to an open attic (which is, behind the basement, the scariest place in a house), and even Katie being dragged from her bed by the demon. All of these visuals are made scarier probably by two factors: one, is that the production is so impressive in getting its audience to be terrified at the quietest moments, instead of surrendering to a loud score, silly makeup effects or hackneyed plots, and two, people seem to have a genuine fear of the devil (which is what made “The Exorcist” so much more frightening than “Halloween”). After “The Exorcist” was released in 1973, Billy Graham claimed that there was an evil in the reels of the film. I might believe him if the quote is attributed to “Paranormal Activity.” Finally, the ultimate flaw with a haunted house film is that the audience can never quite get over the fact that the family should simply leave the house and be over with it. This problem is solved when the audience is told by the expert (even as the couple is pleading with him to help them as he is leaving) that leaving the house will only provoke the demon’s anger and make things worse.
The film then climaxes with utter horror; I had never heard screaming like that in a movie theatre. I ducked behind the chair in front of me, and my heart paced at a rate I had never felt before. One of the first films Roger Ebert reviewed was “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968. In those days, horror films were primarily fun films. This is how “Night of the Living Dead” started, but evolved into a thoroughly disturbing movie, and the laughter and fun dissipated, and the audience was genuinely scared. Ebert noted that next to him was a young girl, totally silent. She had tears rolling down her eyes. I felt like that little girl, not in tears, but certainly wishing that the movie would end.
For hours after the film ended, I felt terrible. I slept with a light on for three weeks. I am not one to be easily scared by movies, and like to think of myself as a calm person, but I was left feeling utterly and terrifyingly scared after this movie. To many this will seem like overreacting, but to me, I have never seen a movie like this. This is by far one of the scariest and most disturbing films I have ever seen. It is possibly the only film I have seen in which I would commend the filmmakers for a job well done but simultaneously not recommend people see it.




[1] To suggest that Peli is some kind of horror maniac is not entirely correct, for he apparently was afraid of “Ghostbusters,” but wanted to channel his fear into something positive.

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