Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Paranormal Activity


I can’t help it, this is the sort of story I just eat up. Not the story the movie tells (though it’s a good one), but the story of the movie. The writer/director, Oren Peli (who???) had never made a movie, but he figured, How hard could it be? So he wrote a scenario—there never was a real script, he had his actors improvise—bought a video camera, and shot the whole thing in his own house. I’ve heard various numbers as to how much he spent doing it, from $11,000 to $15,000. Yes, that’s thousands, not millions. Essentially, it was no budget at all.
As of today, it has grossed $66,000,000 at the box office. Yes, that’s millions, not thousands. It may be the largest expense/return ratio in the history of film. It dwarfs the profit margin of all the Star Wars stuff, beggars the profits of The Dark Knight, totally overwhelms Gone With the Wind and Titanic.
Yeah, but is it any good? The surprise answer: Yes! It’s damn good!
It’s the latest example of a not-too-distinguished sub-genre that I think of as the “found object” movie. The grandmama of the genre is The Blair Witch Project, a film I wasn’t too impressed with. Other examples I have seen are Quarantine (budget: $12,000,000), and Cloverfield (budget: $25,000,000). The idea behind all of these is that a videotape or DVD has been found that shows the development of some horror, and we’re pretty safe in assuming that it was made by people who are now dead.
So. The plot. A demon has attached itself to this young woman. It has never harmed her, but it follows her around from home to home, whispers in her ear, does the usual poltergeist stuff. It’s a distinctly low-budget demon/poltergeist. There are no shattering walls, no flying china and silverware, no collapsing floors that lead straight to Hell. It’s subtle. Things move a little. Distressing thumps and indistinct sounds are heard. It has begun to manifest itself in the home of her boyfriend, where she is currently living. He is skeptical, and wants to record it on video, capture it, bring it back alive.
Now, let me be clear, I don’t believe in ghosts, demons, or any of that horse manure. Not in real life, anyway. But I can believe darn near anything for two hours, for the length of a movie, if the story is well told. And this one is a crackerjack. Mr. Peli knows two things that almost everyone in Hollywood seems to have forgotten:
1) Suspense is better than cheap thrills. Most movies today are described as roller-coaster rides, and it’s an apt comparison. On a coaster you get maybe sixty seconds of suspense, going up the first hill … and it’s not really suspense in the best sense of the word, it’s anticipation. After that, it’s hold onto your hat. You are given one thrill after another, as fast as possible. Or in a horror movie, a bucket of blood is dumped on your head every few minutes. Alfred Hitchcock was called the master of suspense because he knew that building tension was much more effective, and the effects stuck with you longer. Hardly anybody in Hollywood knows how to do that now, or if they do know, they eschew it in favor of what is much easier: Wowing you with CGI and/or buckets of gore. Oren Peli has rediscovered the suspense movie, and made a humdinger.
2) What you don’t see is a lot scarier than what you do see. Alien stopped being a scary movie the moment I got a good look at the creature. After that, it was exciting, but before that I was scared shitless, just about the last time I have been scared at all at the movies. Same with Jaws. Once we see the shark, he’s just a big fish with big teeth. Before that, hidden under the water, he is terrifying on a whole different level. The typical “scary” movie today hammers you relentlessly with gigantic effects and one bloody scene after another, starting about ten minutes in. It gets, and I’m not exaggerating here, boring!
Peli has done something else, too. He has tapped into a primal fear. I have a fear of deep water, and things in that water that I can’t see, so Jaws really got to me. It’s ridiculous to be sitting in a theater, wanting to pull your feet up so a shark can’t bite off your leg, but that’s exactly how I felt. Hitchcock exploited our feelings of vulnerability about being naked, about almost seeing something (through the shower curtain), and the fear of knives that a great many people have (including me) to the point that there are people who to this day feel uneasy getting into the shower.
Here the fear is of what might be happening when we are at our most vulnerable: when we’re asleep. Long sections of this movie are absolutely static shots of the couple in bed, asleep. Nothing happens. Nothing happens. Nothing happens. Nothing happens. And then … something happens. It’s a small thing, a door moving a few inches. A pause, and then the door moves back. You think this sounds boring? It isn’t, trust me. You find yourself obsessively watching this non-moving picture, worried about what will happen next, and the longer you look, the scarier it becomes. We come back to this obsessive shot time after time, night after night, and each time something a little more alarming happens. People have been leaving the theater in the middle of this film, that’s how frightening it gets. The couple hears things, they get out of bed, and we see the jerky camera shots as they try to track this thing down. The woman is beginning to lose her mind. And still the tension builds.
I don’t know about you … the next day, when they are looking at what was taped in their bedroom the night before … well, I try to imagine myself watching some unseen presence billowing the sheets around me as I am lying helpless in the dark … like I said, I don’t believe in haunts, but the moment I saw that I’d tell my girlfriend to take a hike, and take her goddam demon with her. I may be a skeptic, but I’m not a fool.
Interesting bit of trivia: This may be the only major studio release since the silent era to come out with no credits. Not at the beginning, not at the end. No director, no actors, no nothing. Of course, the credits would have been short, there’s only about 5 people in the film and there surely were no caterers, drivers, grips, best boys, or third assistant directors, but still. I have to admire Peli’s dedication to the idea of the “found object” by effacing even himself from the final product.