Friday, October 30, 2009

Paranormal Activity

Normally I'm not a fan of horror movies. They just don't do anything for me. I've never seen any of the Freddy or Jason movies. I steadfastly refuse to watch the various Saws. I made an exception for the Scream franchise and I did enjoy them, but that sort of movie normally doesn't tickle my fancy.

With one exception: I'm a sucker if the movie is supposed to be "real."

I don't know why I have that weakness exactly. But if something is supposed to be "real life," I'll be there in the front row, ready to go.

This isn't a new phenomena for me either. A little over ten years ago, the now-defunct UPN network aired a travesty entitled Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, which was supposedly "found footage" of an entire family in Lake County, Minnesota, being abducted by aliens. The footage was grainy and full of static. The family panic seemed real. The footage was interspersed with interviews with experts (including two I recognized, Stanton Friedman and Michael Shermer). UPN billed the whole thing as real. When it aired, my brother and I watched it and played "X Files" with it. He took the "it's real" stance. I tried to argue it was all fake. We were deadlocked until we saw the final credits and realized that the entire family and the aliens were all given credits. I used to have the thing on tape and even showed it to some college friends of mine. I still get chills when I remember the last image of the final abductee.

Of course, the next year came an even bigger scare, namely The Blair Witch Project. Once again, supposedly found footage about three young people who went into the woods looking for a witch and never came out again. And yes, I know, a lot of people didn't like the movie and I can understand why. Not a lot happened and when stuff did, it was out of focus. But again, that final image in the basement still haunts me. I seriously couldn't go into my own basement after dark for a week. I think part of this movie's success was from the fact that they built such a great mythos around it. The stars didn't do press until a few months after the movie was released, so there was that great question mark hanging over the movie (although let's be honest. If the footage was real, there's no way it would be released to theaters. Just saying).

There have been other movies that have tried this to greater and lesser effect. The most recent example was Cloverfield, a great monster movie supposedly made of "found footage."

Which brings us to what this review is really all about: Paranormal Activity.

The premise is pretty simple: a young woman named Katie has apparently been "haunted" since she was eight. She's since moved in with her boyfriend, a day trader named Micah (but pronounced Mee-kah), who decides that maybe they should turn her paranormal problems into a reality show. Yeah, like nobody would ever think to do that. Ever. They also consult with a psychic who somehow knows that this isn't a ghost, it's actually a demon. Katie and Micah do their best to deal with their nocturnal visitor, who steps up a campaign of terror over what amounts to a month or so of mostly sleepless nights. Things go bang in the night. Strange things happen to Katie. And it all builds up to a supposedly terrifying ending that really didn't do it for me.

I'm actually a little surprised I wasn't more scared by this movie. Compared to Blair Witch, this is the better movie in terms of suspense and build-up. Whereas the former was mostly shaking tents and blurry bloody body parts, this one was pretty obvious. When something spooky happened, you knew what was happening. And the "presence," or whatever you want to call it, certainly ramped up the terror games throughout the movie. There was one point where I was cringing in my seat, certain that the movie was about the end badly.

But the movie kept going. And I think that's part of the reason why I left the theater more bemused than frightened. If the director would have cut off the last minute or two and avoided the over-the-top effect he saved for the very last second, I would have been rattled pretty badly. But thanks to that last minute or two, I wound up rolling my eyes and thinking, "Whatever."

And I think that's another weakness of the film, definitely where it lacks against Blair Witch. Maybe I'm misremembering things, but I seem to recall that there was that massive question mark hovering over Blair Witch. Was this real? If it isn't, where are the actors? Who are they? That sort of thing. It wasn't until weeks into the run that the "truth" was revealed, that the actors went on Leno, that the whole thing was revealed to be fiction.

But I knew before I even set foot into the theater that what I was seeing wasn't real. While it certainly smacked of reality, I had that safety valve in the back of my mind. If things got too tense (and a lot of scenes trended that way for me), I could simply remind myself, "Hey, the actors are on this week's cover for Entertainment Weekly. They're fine. It's just a movie."

Don't get me wrong. There are some genuine chills and plenty of "jump-out-of-your-seat" moments that had my heart pumping and my palms sweaty. And it's an incredible testament to the keep-it-simple-stupid philosophy. I mean, this was made for $11,000, for crying out loud! I just don't know if it's the incredible phenomenon everyone makes it out to be.

But I still have that soft spot for these kinds of movies. Which is why I think my next excursion to the theater will be for a movie whose trailer I saw this afternoon: The Fourth Kind. I think they may be a little liberal in saying it's based on "case studies," but I'll still be ready to see what I can see. How about you?

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