Monday, October 19, 2009

House arrest: Paranormal Activity

She’s a nice girl, but she has a history. She’s been followed all her life by something unseen, something which makes its presence felt in other ways. Katie is an English major, good-humoured, pretty, but somehow plain. Micah is a day trader with a large house for them to share. He’s got average guy looks, style and attitude, and an average guy’s fear of commitment. Everything about Katie, Micah and the house they occupy is so rigorously ordinary it’s nearly anonymous. There’s almost no décor to speak of. They don’t have photos on their computer desktops. But we know people like this, who like things new and clean and comfortably boring. Their relationship is founded on such unspoken acceptance of the status quo. Their characterless home becomes a blank slate upon which fear can slowly spread across.

Everything we see and hear in Paranormal Activity is transmitted through Micah’s video camera. There are noises in the night. Soon there will be movement. A sober psychic will visit, but he claims what they’ve got here’s a demon, and he’s strictly a ghost man. He gives them the number of a good demonologist, but the demonologist is out of town and they have to wait, with only Micah’s camera, an occult guidebook, and a Ouija board for protection. Of course they have each other, but their nerves are getting mutually rattled and, despite Katie’s repeated protests, Micah won’t stop taunting whatever is stalking her. Micah’s cocky—he thinks he knows how the movie is going to end. You could say Paranormal Activity is a parable of martial anxiety. Micah regards his camera as a sort of erotic appendage. He asks Katie to kiss it. Micah wants to get busy on camera, but Katie isn’t willing to consummate. Micah jokes that they’re engaged to be engaged, which is another way of saying that the force of Katie’s domesticating presence may be scarier to him than any malevolent demon.

Orin Peli’s micro-budget debut, arriving in theatres ten years after The Blair Witch Project, an obvious precursor both in form and marketing strategies, is flawed in several ways but perfectly ingenious nonetheless. It succumbs, like that other Blair Witch offspring [REC], to the habit of over-explaining the persistence of the running camera. It distracts with questions as to why this nice, if troubled young woman wants to be with this idiot, whose callousness is overstated. The film would benefit immensely from shaving off the last 30 seconds or so, when the sudden intrusion of corny horror movie effects sucks the air out of the documentary verisimilitude. (This ending, shot after Peli’s original cut was completed, was reportedly suggested by Steven Spielberg, an early fan and instrumental in the film’s distribution.) But Paranormal Activity still works, at times brilliantly so.

The most inspired shot in the whole thing is the one repeated over and over, one that almost echoes Michael Haneke or David Lynch. Micah’s camera is set up to monitor their bedroom while the couple sleeps. The results are mostly static, which is the masterstroke. Our eyes dart between the people sleeping, the gloom beyond the bedroom door, and the in-camera clock, which speeds up for expediency and then slows down just when that dreaded something is going to happen. Was that a murmur? A shadow? Was that just a breeze? This anticipation is what bad dreams are made of.

It bears comparison to The Strangers, a movie with an unusually large gap between the eloquence of its premise and the inanity of its resolution. Like The Strangers, Paranormal Activity concerns a couple at a turning point in their relationship, isolated in a single location, their anxiety seeming to manifest as an intruder determined to get inside. In a sense the entire story becomes a sort of sex act, or slow rape. The intruder, the ostensible demon, penetrates the house little by little, lubricating the cavity, if you will, until it’s made its way fully inside, fusing the alliance between sex and death inherent in these stories. But unlike many stories of this kind, Paranormal Activity understands the importance of restraint. And it doesn’t climax early.

1 comment:

Audrey said...

Agreed on the last 30 seconds bit but I told you that in person. Ummm...Spielberg? Really?! Boo to that.