Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Paranormal Filmmaking

Paranormal Activity has become this year's upstart indie-horror surprise hit. There is one every few years..you know, the movie everyone refers to as "this year's Blair Witch," much in the same way there is always an upstart indie comedy hit that people want to call "this year's Sideways" or "this year's Juno" (of course, when it was released, Juno was "this year's Sideways"). But enough of that...maybe I'm just treading water because the unavoidable point is that Paranormal Activity just isn't that special.

The film is a creative enterprise, that's for sure. It is absolutely scarier than most studio schlock that is released with the "horror" label but would more accurately be placed in the "porn" category. And in its way, it truly is scarier than a movie like Blair Witch, which was more cerebral about building an urban legend than Paranormal, which is about building fear. The movie will undeniably send some chills through your body, but they are almost always buffered by glaring logical lapses that shouldn't be so obvious in a movie that is already about the unbelievable.

Part of the problem is that the "filmmaker" is actually not a filmmaker at all, but a guy who has worked in multimedia for along time and then decided to make this piece of media as an experiment. Oren Peli has a lot of creativity, and should be commended for his lack of vanity in not taking a "Directed by" credit that preserves the eerie non-movie feel of this picture better than just about any movie ever made. But of course that's relatively easy, since the entire crew consists of Peli and his two actors, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (Mark Fredrichs and Ashley Palmer play the film's only supporting roles and also go uncredited). Taking a page right out of Blair Witch, the two stars play versions of themselves. Katie, we learn, has always been followed by some unexplained entity, and her boyfriend Micah is a blustering bundle of male bravado who taunts said entity until it comes...and comes...and comes again, each occurrence more intense than the last.

Featherston is the stand out; her fear is palpable and her character completely believable. Sloat is a decent foil, even though he is forced to play a real jerk of a character who cares more about thumping his chest than keeping his girlfriend safe (but maybe that was the point). The filmmaking itself is uneven, making it difficult to totally buy that the entire story was shot by the two characters at all times, but that is forgiveable. This is, after all, a small movie that no one ever thought would reach such a massive audience.

For the most part, Paranormal Activity works about as well as it can within its limited confines. It drags for a good long while in the middle, becomes slightly irksome in its story inconsistencies, and saves the truly chilling stuff for the end, which goes out with a big bang and then literally goes dark. And truthfully, it is that dark that is only truly scary moment. After 90 minutes of small-scale thrills, the movie ends with an uncharacteristic movie-movie moment that takes us out of the film's natural flow...but when the movie cuts to black and holds, without credits, there is a suspended sense of creepy wonder than permeates the audience. The film is admirable for its methods, but those methods are ultimately more effective when analyzed than when viewed on the screen.

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