Appellate Judge Tom Becker was recently involved in some paraprofessional activity. It was terrifying.
"Paramount Pictures would like to thank the families of Micah Sloat & Katie Featherstone and the San Diego Police Department."
Every year sees another "new horror classic," a low-budget sleeper that, for better or worse, is declared, "One of the scariest movies (in years, of all time, since Psycho)," and so on. While I've on occasion been pleasantly (or unpleasantly, given the genre) surprised—I found The Strangers to be truly creepy and unsettling—too often, films like The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project just don't live up to the hype.
The surprise horror hit of '09, Paranormal Activity, really was a sleeper. Made in 2007 for less than you'd pay for a used Toyota, the film played a couple of festivals and then sat until September 2009, when Paramount gave it a limited release.
The lightning that was the Blair Witch found-footage of "real" people experiencing "real" horror struck again. The film sold out almost all its limited-release showings. Positive word-of-mouth and a clever Internet campaign led to a wider release, and the film went on to gross more than $100 million in US theaters alone.
Now, Paramount gives us Paranormal Activity on Blu-ray—but is the disc worth the wait?
Facts of the Case
Using pieced-together "found footage," Paranormal Activity gives us San Diego residents Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherstone),a young couple experiencing, well, paranormal activity—odd noises in the middle of the night, faucets running that had been turned off, items moved around, and other such unsettling business. Katie believes this relates to her: she believes she was visited by a specter when she was a child, and it might or might not have been connected to a mysterious fire that destroyed her family's home.
Micah sees all this in a more adventurous light. He buys a video camera—which records everything we see here—hoping to digitally capture the supernatural goings on. Katie, on the other hand, calls in a psychic (Richard Chamberlain look-alike Mark Fredrichs), who advises that there is, indeed, a haunting in progress. He confirms that it's not the house, it's Katie, and that the thing is likely a demon (rather than something more benign, like a poltergeist). He warns that whatever they do, they should not bring a Ouija board into their home. Naturally, Micah goes out and brings a Ouija board into their home.
This ticks Katie off to no end—but her aggravation is nothing compared to the annoyed entity lurking in their home.
At the risk of sabotaging my own review, I'd like to state upfront:
1. I made it a point not to read anything about Paranormal Activity before I saw it. For once, I wanted to actually be surprised by a "surprise hit."
2. Try as I will to avoid it, this review might contain spoilers, so if you've not yet seen the film, read at your own risk.
Paranormal Activity really did "sneak up" on the movie-going public. Released with little fanfare and no recognizable stars (the better to maintain that whole "it really happened" vibe), it has gone on to become perhaps the most profitable movie ever made. It was lauded by a number of major critics and seemed to be a much-needed shot in the arm for the increasingly overused self-shot genre. Its low-budget thrills were a welcome respite from the glut of disappointing J-horror and '80s "classic" remakes and flashy, but empty, PG-13 shriekers. It was Blair Witch for the '00 generation.
Director Oren Peli takes quite a bit from the Blair Witch playbook. The film opens with a "dedication" to the families of Katie and Micah, as well as the San Diego PD, tipping us off that our heroes don't make it and that the footage was retrieved from the police. Since Featherstone and Sloat have no other significant screen credits, we can suspend disbelief enough to accept this as a "real" account. While Blair Witch stranded its characters by getting them lost in the woods, Paranormal Activity establishes that the demon is specifically after Katie, so they can't just leave the house and be done with it.
Unfortunately, Paranormal Activity is a little too Blair Witch for my tastes, tedious and frustrating when it should have been revelatory.
I'm not a fan of the self-shot, found-footage genre. I find the technique to be awkward, the necessity to cast non-professional actors (so we can believe that it's all "real") limiting, and the contrivances to keep the whole thing afloat (would you really grab a camera and keep it recording if you were running for your life?) a little annoying. I had hopes that Paranormal Activity might change my opinion. After all, the entire film is set in a haunted house wherein the camera is used by the protagonists to record the haunting, so the usual drawbacks of the form might not have been so glaring.
Unfortunately, Peli seems more concerned with making a found-footage film than with making a good horror film. He spends lavish amounts of time giving us Katie and Micah hanging out, chatting, joking, bickering, and so on. The problem is, they're just not that interesting a pair. There's no depth to the characters, no subtext to the relationship. By trying to make them ordinary and relatable, Peli instead makes them sub-ordinary and colorless. The only interesting thing about them is that they're battling a demon who, for reasons unexplained, is fixated on the blasé Katie.
Katie is tremulous, frightened, and occasionally shrill; Micah is a dunderhead who tries to out-cowboy a demon, fecklessly screaming things like, "You can't ¥@ÞΓ*Π! with my girlfriend like that, Demon!" and "We don't need an exorcist, I'll take care of this myself!" This makes sense early in the film, but after hours of videotaped shenanigans by the Evil One, plus a few more physical manifestations, you'd think the guy would figure out that macho posturing is just not an effective way of dealing with a Friend of the Devil. As the haunted couple, non-actors Katie Featherstone and Micah Sloat do pretty much what you'd expect non-actors to do, particularly non-actors working without benefit of a tight script (or, perhaps, a script at all). They offer one-note, "situational" performances.
As for the Demon—well, it goes "bump in the night" quite nicely. It also moves things around, fiddles with the lights, makes a mess on the floor with some baby powder, and eventually becomes really aggressive. If we had more demonics and less boring couple, this could have been an intense and frightening experience. I imagine Peli was working with the "less is more" theory that overloading the scary bits dilutes their impact, but instead he underplays his horror hand. Slicing 20 minutes might have made it a hard sell as a feature, but it's overlong at 86 minutes. Since we have to slog through so much repetitive small talk to get to the scares, the effect ends up being less, "Oh no! What's the Demon going to do?" then it is, "Get on with it already, Demon." In addition, there are several potential "Boo!" moments that build tension but just don't pay off.
Peli also makes some odd directorial choices, especially given his insistence on making this all seem "real." Particularly grating is his tendency to throw in lap dissolves and jump cuts at seemingly random times, like the middle of conversations. I get the idea—that there was some excessive ramble in the conversation, and the person assembling the footage got rid of it to pick up the pacing—but it's awfully distracting. So are speeded-up time sequences, wherein we see the camera counter zip through several hours in a couple of minutes while we watch Katie and Micah sleep, so we can get to the Demon opening a door at, say, 4:38 a.m. Touches like these, along with the endless scenes of chit-chat, take you out of the story enough that you start to ponder logic questions, such as: Even though Katie can't escape The Evil One, wouldn't you still flee if an unseen ghoulie were trashing your home? Call the police? Go to a bar, maybe? And when you did decide (finally!) to go, would you really bother to "pack the car"?
The story behind the film is, arguably, more interesting than the film itself; no less than Steven Spielberg championed the movie, and even got Peli to re-do the ending. You'd think Paramount might have capitalized on all this for the Blu-ray release, giving us an interview or commentary with Peli, some information on how this lowest-of-budget films became a phenomenon, maybe even going the Blair Witch route and playing up the mythology of the story, "testaments" about Katie and Micah, all that. Instead, they're releasing an almost shockingly bare edition.
The film itself looks great. I was afraid the Blu-ray might point up the flaws of the low tech, but instead we get a beautiful, clear picture and a great audio track that picks up all the subtle sounds. Supplement-wise, however, this is a huge letdown.
Yes, this is the "Two-Disc Digital Copy Edition," but one of those two discs is the digital copy itself. The other disc contains but one extra: an alternate ending. From what I've read, this is the ending that Peli originally used and scrapped for the Spielberg-recommended, slightly flashier finish. You can watch the film all the way through with either ending, or just watching the endings separately. And that's all she wrote, other than a trailer for Martin Scorsese's upcoming Shutter Island. It is unbelievable that Paramount would release what might be the most financially successful film in its history with only this as a supplement.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are some genuinely frightening moments here, and probably in a darkened theater with other people waiting to be scared, this was more compelling. I understand people were creeped out and upset by this film, and it must have been great as a midnight movie in a college town. In the cold light of Blu-ray, it just didn't have that effect on me.
A successful, if overhyped, film gets a marginal Blu-ray release from Paramount. Maybe there's a Three-Disc Set scheduled to coincide with the inevitable sequel; until then, rent this if you want to check it out.
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