Weekly meditations from your humble messenger

The Thing That Wouldn't Leave
(Paranormal Activity, 11/2/09)
By Nicholas Nicastro

While 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 techniques—the "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 it—can 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 happens—we 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 off—at 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 trip.
      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.

©2009 Nicholas Nicastro

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