The Thing That Wouldn't Leave
(Paranormal Activity, 11/2/09)
By Nicholas Nicastro
it's fashionable to declare that we hate reality television (it's right
up there with the boast "I don't own a set!"), the tropes
of reality TV have demonstrably enriched scripted storytelling. In obvious
ways (The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield) and less obvious
ones (Rachel Getting Married) the genre's techniquesthe
"first-person" view from the hand-held camera, lesser-known
actors and general feeling that as much is going on outside the frame
as in itcan be quite effective.
We can now add Oren Peli's chilling
Paranormal Activity to the list. How creepy is this movie? Full
disclosure: while I refused to sleep with the lights on after a late-night
showing, I did turn on the lava lamp in my bedroom. And I cursed my
corgi for her heavy, inhuman snoring.
The script is a variation on one
of the oldest thriller formulas there is: the haunted house. Not so
much because the house is just a typical soulless (OK, maybe not so
soulless...) suburban tract home, but because heroine Katie (Katie Featherston)
is personally haunted, so the typical objection ("Why don't they
just get out?") doesn't really apply here. Katie and husband Micah
(Micah Sloate) are hearing things go bump in the night, so he decides
to buy a fancy video camera to capture...whatever.
The movie is basically a record
of what happens over successive nights, after Micah sets up the camera
and the couple goes to bed. It's no spoiler to say that most of the
time, nothing at all happenswe just sit and watch them sleep by
the stark light of the camera's night-vision. Nor should it ruin anything
to disclose that, when the haunting does get underway, Peli mostly eschews
the usual CGI wizardry for spare, suggestive touches of "paranormality".
What does happen is as scary as we imagine it to be, because we are
imagining it, instead of having it spoon fed to us by boffins sitting
at computer screens. Chances are that, for a few days after seeing this
movie, you won't see a light switch or an ice-cube maker in quite the
same way. True, this kind of masterly build-up of suspense is hard to
pay offat some point, "suggestive" must give way to
"overt", and in this Paranormal doesn't quite find
closure. Perhaps it's best to say that, in this case, the journey makes
The movie isn't just about chills.
The characterizations are actually quite good, from Katie's adaptable
fatalism to Micah's feckless swaggering in the face of their uninvited
guest. As a psychic hired to advise them, Mark Fredrichs is subtly amusing
in his professional caginess ("This kind of haunting isn't my specialty.
You're looking for a demonologist.") Peli is also perceptive in
how he updates the haunted house story for current times. Katie and
Micah are childless and, though in their late twenties, child-like.
Like many folks today, neither have regular jobs (she's a student, he's
a day-trader), so they're that much at risk for this particular problem.
What's worse than sleeping in a haunted house? Having a home office
in your haunted house, too.
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