Sunday, October 18, 2009

Thumbs Up for 'Paranormal Activity'

As an avid movie watcher (all genres, all time periods, all countries), I have to count horror among my least favorite genres. Not because of the gore factor or subject matter so much as the difficulty of finding a horror film that actually gets under my skin. I can honestly say no movie has ever scared me since Poltergeist when I was 5 years old. My favorite horror films are more psychological thrillers than sheer terror, including Jaws, Rosemary's Baby, and Alien. I can't stand slasher films, they aren't intelligent enough to capture my interest. A climbing body count will do nothing for me unless there is a tight script and fascinating characters to follow, as in The Silence of the Lambs.

There are several elements I consider necessary to create a great horror film and "Paranormal Activity" had too many slices of genius for me to deny it a shout out. Let me start off by saying that docu-reality in horror hasn't worked for me prior. I rolled my eyes at the Blair Witch (though I did appreciate we never saw her). Cloverfield did nothing for my imagination. The only time I saw docu-reality working recently in a somewhat effective way was in District 9, where I thought it blended well with the storyline. Paranormal Activity on the other hand could not have been filmed any other way.

One of the most effective tools in the creation of a horror film is a fantastic villain. And by that, I mean one that is virtually impossible to get rid of. When I think back to Alien, I see all the elements in place for a terrific sci-fi horror extravaganza. You have the Nostromo, a salvaging ship, and its crew passing through the voids of deep space, essentially mimicking a gang of truckers in space. Their job is not to discover and fight aliens but rather do their contracted work, collect galactic trash and go home. They are stuck in the middle of the universe where 'no one can hear them scream' and confined to a large ship with no shortage of nooks and crannies for a species to hide. Not to mention, this is no ordinary creature and something they are completely unprepared to handle, and it has acid for blood. With respect to Paranormal Activity, what better predator is there than one you can't even see, nonetheless begin to comprehend? And if you need a hand, sorry - your only help is on vacation.

A favorite weapon of mine in the filmmaking arsenal is the skillful use of allowing the audience's imagination to wander as opposed to showing the audience everything in the screenshot. What one can't see is far more terrifying than what one can. In 'Signs', M Night Shyamalan masterfully employs this concept by hiding the alien from our view. We feel its presence in the wind blowing through the trees or the dog barking outside. The brief glimpses of its hand popping out from under the door or running in the background of a children's birthday party *cringe* are enough. These techniques were so perfect that seeing the alien was a massive letdown. Our imaginations conjure up far worse. (Remember Rosemary's Baby?)

Throughout the course of Paranormal Activity, we encounter an average couple who have just moved in together. Unlike most actors employed in docu-reality (always unknowns, of course) these two were completely believable as the ordinary couple they appeared to be. Docu-reality takes a risk as the characters aren't often developed or fleshed out enough to pull me into their personal story prior to the involved plot, and if this isn't successfully accomplished, we fail to care about the character's inner experience. We can all relate to Micah and Katie; we've all been in a close relationship and if we don't see ourselves in these two, we certainly know someone just like them.

Like The Blair Witch Project, we are observing an experience after-the-fact, captured on film. We already know it didn't end well. We come to learn that Micah and Katie are not the only inhabitants in their new house. This is news to Micah but apparently not to Katie, who has felt an entity with her since she was a girl she was powerless to explain. Micah is the stereotypical young male, more curious than fearless, more concerned with his new camera and filming the possibilities than his girlfriend's emotions. He is convinced he is in full control and can handle any situation that arises, if there's anything to even be concerned about in the first place. His camera rolls non-stop, capturing the mundane details of his domestic life with Katie. While they sleep at night, the camera vigilantly captures every detail.

The true prodigy of this film is that it capitalizes on all of humankind's biggest fears harking back to our earliest nightmares as children: Things that go bump in the night, what might be hiding in our closet, attic, or under the bed, what our eyes can't see, what really happens when we are asleep and helpless in a dark room, our sleepwalking activities, and why we always have that incessant urge to keep our toes hidden underneath a blanket. Like a good Stephen King production, we are inherently disturbed because the piece has tapped into the dark recesses of our psyche to dance with our most instinctual disturbances.

I can't say I was truly terrified (movies just don't do that to me), but lets just say I was more disturbed than anything I have seen in a long time. I truly enjoyed it as a picture as the cleverness was too pronounced to ignore, not to mention it was mad fun to listen to the audience gasp and squirm in their seats. I especially loved walking out of the theater to nervous chatter among grown men who wanted to wet their seats. Now that's entertainment.