18 November 2011

Oren Peli's "Paranormal Activity"

The 2009 DVD release.
It's hard re-watching this film after seeing Paranormal Activity 3 in theaters a few weeks ago... My brother and I decided to see it after we saw that Entertainment Weekly gave the movie an A- (and it's rare to see anything with an A grade anymore, even with a wee little minus attached to it).

So, going back to the first film that started it all, it's difficult not to compare this one with the newest movie release. Both PA films stick to the formulas established in the series, but PA3 is a sleeker, glossier (and creepier) version, complete with an 80s retro vibe (I can't believe the decade in which I was born is officially retro!!) that made the film more personally appealing to me.

That, and they got Bloody Mary right. Ah, summer camp slumber party memories. *Sigh*

Anyway, before I go off on a nostalgic tangent I'm going to get back on track by talking about Paranormal Activity's formula. Now, I've only seen the first and third films, and the formula seems to work for both...so, know this--I HAVEN'T SEEN THE SECOND MOVIE so if it defies the formula I will be rendered gobsmacked and hereby apologize in advance to all PA film fans, including my brother.

The magical elements in a PA film:
  •  Mysterious events (supernatural in nature) warrant documentation, investigation, and proof.
  • The video camera and related technology (computer, audio equipment, etc) is introduced as means to provide documentation, investigation, and proof.
  • There is a direct correlation between the level of investigation and the intensity of the haunting. Efforts made to document, capture, or clarify manifestations are interpreted as provocations and activity worsens.
  • Additional research is conducted (most often by the person filming the haunting) and sources on folklore, religions, and the occult are consulted in order to bolster (or create) an explanation for the haunting to exist.
  • Although the manifestations may be witnessed by multiple parties, the haunting tends to center around a specific individual, aka a "target."
  • The person who doubts or underestimates the forces behind the haunting (most often the person filming and recording the events) tends to get a ghostly/demonic comeuppance (killed in a nasty way right in front of their very own video camera. That'll teach you, doubters!)
As an added bonus, two more unofficial clauses in the PA film contract:
  • The person documenting the haunting will set the camcorder up in the bedroom and casually ask his girlfriend if he can film them having sex ("Wanna make a home movie? tee hee").
  • At some point, someone will be dragged backward across the floor by the ankles, face turned towards the camera, screaming.
Aside from the goofiness of those last two bullet points, the above formula is the promise the PA film series makes to its viewers (kind of like the reader-author contract for genre fiction!); these qualifiers are a big reason why these films have been so successful.

Now, some context:

Paranormal Activity came out in 2007 and it's safe to say that ghost-hunting (amateur or otherwise) has been firmly ensconced in popular culture as its own separate genre. To be honest, this niche has been around well before the Naughty Aughties. When I was in high school (97-01) it wasn't uncommon to find ghost hunting/paranormal documentary shows on MTV, ABC Family, Syfy, A&E, TLC, Discovery, etc...not to mention all of the fun ghost-hunting marathons they'd run on Halloween (Scariest Places on Earth, for example). I also can't help but mention the game changer, The Blair Witch Project, which was considered innovative at its time (people believed it was real!) as a compilation of discovered documentary footage providing evidence of a haunting (again, not real, but it sure fooled a ton of people). 

And maybe it's even more important to mention that this time also signaled the birth and rise of social networking sites, You Tube, etc....so this is the generation of people who literally see it to believe it and believe it when they see it. This is the "Broadcast Yourself" culture, where anyone and everyone documents everything. This is a hard generation to scare, I think (yup, I'm a part of it, those lovely Millennials attracting a lot of attention in the media for being "failures" at the moment, or just being "jerky and self- entitled") because we've seen everything, even if we haven't. The articles are apt to call us a "plugged-in generation;" it's 100% true. So think about it....this is a culture that documents everything, is big on the prefix "self", and tends to lump "amateur" and "professional" together in the same sentence (if it's the same work and skill set, there's no distinction, right?)....the audience is full of experts (with or without quotation marks) that you have to win over. And experts are hard to impress.

So...given the nature of its multitasking, plugged-in audience, Paranormal Activity has to multitask and keep its audience plugged in. Ha! I'm so creative, see how I spun that? Please, tell me I'm perfect because I already think I am and I need validation cause I'm a Millennial (Sorry, couldn't resist).

The foundation of Paranormal Activity is the good old-fashioned haunting (without this you have no film, period): objects move by themselves, there are strange noises (banging, humming, breathing, growling), strange shadows and shifting shapes, and of course things get even more intense when the supernatural forces are underestimated. Without question PA has to get this part right because it is a horror film and a ghost story first. The technology and documentation only serve as a means to relate the story to the audience. It still has to be done right, since this is the mode, but it is secondary in importance to the story (At least that's my opinion. I'm not a filmmaker--but maybe the mode is primary in function because it is a film, and then the story closely behind? I don't know. But movies that treat stories as secondary in importance tend to suck. So there you go.).

When it comes to both aspects of PA--the ghost story and the documentary--I think the movie pulls this off well for the most part. Some of the footage was pretty hokey at times (the spinnerooney Ouija board anyone? Keep it classy and subtle by having it catch fire at the end of the planchette dance. Yeah.) but there are genuinely creepy moments here and there. The best evidence of haunting captured on video had to be the things you can easily overlook: the curtains rustling, the light fixtures swinging, etc. These little details are ignored while Micah and Katie wait for the BIG BAD SCARY to happen,which is their mistake--they don't realize the depth of the trouble they are in until it's too late.

The scariest things sneak up on you. Standing over the edge of a cliff is much scarier and engrossing than jumping off of one. When the PA films understand this principle, the movies work--you meet the horror criteria and the documentary (realism) criteria. But when the movie overdoes it, blehhh. Case in point, and yes, SPOILERS:
  • Katie getting pulled out of bed and onto the floor by an invisible force YES!! // Katie getting dragged backward across the floor and down the hallway NO!!! (This is a stupid cliche and I've seen it in tons of horror and sci-fi films and trailers. HOLLYWOOD, STOP DOING THIS!)
  • Micah's body slamming into the camera YES!!! // Katie crawling over Micah's body and sniffing his corpse  MAYBE... // Katie looking directly into the camera, her face transforming, scream-growling NO!!
Don't get me wrong, despite these little qualms I do like the PA films; they're fun and entertaining (and yeah, I'd say No. 3 was pretty good!). But if they keep making more PA movies, and they want to convince the audience that this very well could be "found footage,"then it would be better to walk the line instead of cross it...you know, be a little more subtle. You don't have to show us everything. We can fill in the blanks on our own, trust us! We'll make it real, we'll make it scary.

If you give your audience a 10, you bet they'll make it an 11. That's the reward for keeping your promise to them.

Source:
 
Paranormal Activity. Dir. Oren Peli. Perf. Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat. Paramount Pictures, 2007. Streamed via Netflix.

6 comments:

  1. Great post, as always. I really enjoyed the assessment of your generation (very accurate, at least from this Gen-Xer's point of view), and your analysis of the film is spot-on. The theatrical ending kills an otherwise great vibe. I think PA is done trying to convince its audience that it's potentially real, and sequels make me cry so I hope they stop that, too. But you've kind of made me want to see PA 3.

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  2. I agree. I enjoyed this movie, but not the ending. Good analysis, as usual.

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  3. It was definitely hard to not compare the first one to the newest film, and unfortunately I think I'm more of a fan of the first! I agree, though, that some of the "creepy" events were done better in the third...but I thought that the third ruined the storyline of the entire thing. Anyway -- back to the first film. I thought that it got hokey as well. I loved when she got pulled off the bed too! And you're right, the creepiest parts are the ones that slowly sneak up on you - the doors, the blankets, etc.

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  4. Good point about the light fixture, curtains, etc. I thought that stuff was sincerely creepy. I was wishing they'd just left the end off camera. I enjoyed your analysis -- great post.

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  5. Great post. As for your question about whether the story or the mode is primary in filmmaking, I can tell you that it depends on the film. Although story is always tantamount, in movies such as this, mode is equally important, as it actually becomes a part of the story (Another example of this would be the French film Irreversible, where the emotion of the characters at the beginning of the film is actually mimicked through nauseating camera movements, or Christopher Nolan's Memento, where the non-linear storytelling is used in order to allow the character to be surprised by his own actions).

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  6. Loved your post. I thought there were quite a few hokey things in the story, too (but I still found myself curling up like a boiled shrimp in a few places). The ending, I agree, could have been much more effective, but Hollywood fears ambiguity - which means often I feel like a dog having my nose rubbed into the carpet (Do you get it!? She was possessed and killed him...get it?!)

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