by Jason Coffman
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Until a few weeks ago, writer/director Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity was one of the most infamous film festival disappearing acts of the last few years. Snapped up by Paramount/Dreamworks after gaining huge festival buzz, the film completely vanished. Occasional rumors would circulate, most notably that the studio had bought the rights in order to remake the film with a name cast, but even the rumors didn’t last long in the face of complete silence on the part of the studio. Now, finally, Paramount is giving the film an unusual release strategy: rolling it out in different cities as demanded by fans.
All of which means simply that the rest of us— those not lucky enough to see the film during its brief festival run— finally get to see it and decide if it was worth the wait. And the answer, as with any film arriving with this much hype behind it, is complicated.
Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston play Micah and Katie, a couple who have recently moved into a house together. The film opens with Micah playing around with his new camcorder, which he has purchased for a very specific purpose: turns out Katie forgot to mention to Micah that some sort of supernatural force has followed her around her entire life, and lately some weird stuff has been happening in the house. Micah hopes that by documenting it they can figure out what exactly they’re dealing with, and so sets about “taping” the couple constantly, mostly while they sleep. A paranormal researcher warns Micah near the beginning of the film that his attempts to document the force may be interpreted as an attempt at communicating with it, and strongly discourages Micah’s mission.
Naturally, Micah completely ignores this warning and the film quickly settles into a pattern: Micah sets up the video camera on a tripod and we watch as the couple sleeps in time lapse, until something weird happens, and then the couple deals with it. This repetition becomes exhausting as the film goes on, no doubt mimicking the grind that the characters are experiencing with their lack of rest and confusion, and the film spends a lot of time with the characters before anything too crazy happens. In fact, this is actually the film’s biggest flaw: we spend too much time with the characters as Peli errs on the side of restraint and character development.
However, like The Blair Witch Project (to which the film is often likened due to its camcorder/”handheld horror” aesthetic), the film eventually devolves into a long series of increasingly tiresome scenes of the couple bickering in between the bouts of supernatural unpleasantness. Once the film gets going, however, it ramps up fast and hard. There’s no question that the last ten minutes or so are among the most unsettling and frightening moments in horror film history. Unfortunately, there’s also no question that the very end of the film is one of the most frustrating moments of any film in recent memory.
Still, there’s a lot to admire here. The performances are solid and the film builds an impressive atmosphere of claustrophobic dread— we never venture away from the house, and there are only four speaking roles in the entire film. Peli’s willingness to spend time with his characters instead of just making them punching bags for monsters is refreshing, even if you wish he had trimmed and tightened the film a bit more (Peli also edited the film himself). If ever there was a film tailor-made for watching in a packed theater of people willing to get the wits scared out of them, Paranormal Activity is it. How well it would hold up watching at home on DVD late at night, I don’t know, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it if you thought you could stay up for the whole thing. Those last ten minutes are a killer.
You can “demand” that the film play in your city by visiting http://www.paranormalactivity-movie.com. One word of warning, though: if you’re concerned about spoilers, you probably don’t want to watch the trailer or TV spot.
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago
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