Friday, October 09, 2009


When DreamWorks picked up Israeli émigré Oren Peli's effectively creepy lo-fi supernatural thriller Paranormal Activity at Slamdance 2008, it withdrew the film from its scheduled festival appearances in the Bay Area. As reported at the time on The Evening Class, SF IndieFEST resisted DreamWorks’ position and went ahead with its scheduled screening. Since then—as Dennis Harvey has detailed at Variety—"Paranormal's path to commercial release has been a laborious one: Initially, DreamWorks intended to simply use it as a DVD extra for a bigger-budgeted remake it signed Peli to create. When that fell through, the pic shifted to Paramount's shelf."

Nearly two years later, as Harvey enumerates, Paramount has taken an unusual approach in its distribution of the film, scheduling it at midnight screenings in various metropolitan and college markets, and encouraging viewers to urge wider bookings via
online service Demand. The strategy appears to have paid off. The midnight screenings have been nationwide sellouts, demand for the film has increased, and sightings of Paranormal Activity can now be expected in a more conventional theatrical rollout. Our thanks to Peter Galvin for his review.

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Micah and Katie have got it all worked out. He's a day trader and his job pays well enough to support them both while Katie goes to school. Early on in Paranormal Activity Micha explains that they're "engaged to be engaged" and they've finally decided to move in together. The only thing gumming up the works is that Katie is being plagued by nightmares and strange voices while she sleeps. Concerned, Micah hatches a plan to film these mysterious phenomena with a camera set up in the corner of their bedroom in order to better understand the unwanted presence plaguing his and Katie's lives.

Shot entirely through a diegetic camera and posited as "found footage", Paranormal Activity probably shouldn't work. The weathered movie-goer in me immediately figured the set-up for a cash-in on an increasingly tired gimmick: "Those aren't scary noises, that's the director behind the scenes jiggling the lights and stomping his feet. No way will I be amused for an entire 90 minutes of light-jiggling." But let me tell you, when I walked out of that theatre, I was white-knuckled and grinning. Not only does this gimmick still have some legs, but this may be one of the best examples of it I've seen.

Largely, the film's success is due to the performances. Set entirely in one location, where the two main actors are on-screen for every frame, the film lives or dies on how willing the audience is to care about its characters. Katie (Featherston) is so steadfast in her belief that the anomalies that torment her are ghostly that dialogue which could have elicited laughs comes across instead as serious and sinister. Micah (Sloat) matches Katie's earnestness with a thick sense of humor, but his main function is ultimately as aggressor. His preoccupation with filming the house's curious displays and his stubborn unwillingness to stop and listen to what his girlfriend actually needs drive the film toward an uncertain conclusion. Neither give particularly showy portrayals, but the pair have a natural chemistry and authenticity, without which my belief would certainly have crumbled.

Another asset is writer/director Oren Peli's knack for subtlety containing the film from being an overblown shockfest. Sure, some of his willingness to downplay the scares can be chalked up to a meager budget, but Peli has an unwavering dedication to the illusion he has formed and understands when less is more. Many of the scarier sequences are spent merely watching the couple sleep, but our perspective from the tripod facing their bed—a spinning timecode on the screen counting down the hours 'til morning—creates an undeniable apprehension for what might happen before they wake. As the film continues, and the attacks become increasingly brazen, the static point-of-view also helps to transform the otherwise modest effects into impressive displays of movie magic.

Completed in 2007, Paranormal Activity has been withheld for three years while Peli figured out how to approach a proposed big budget remake. Whatever forces conspired to help that project dissolve, I'm glad, as the low-budget no-name feel of the film is one of its strongest distinctions. We've had more than enough verité horror in recent years, but if the execution continues to prove as effective as Paranormal Activity, I don't see that trend dying out anytime soon.

Cross-published at
Ornery-Cosby and Twitch.