Fargo's Moving Picture Extravaganza! Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity


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Horror films are at a strange point recently. There are rarely any big-budget films in theatres, with the genre being so unpredictable that film studios aren't really willing to take risks. What generally happens in the industry is low-budget productions end up garnering widespread success and acclaim, so studios take this as a sign to create endless sequels or at least films with very similar thematically and stylistically. This is why we are seeing so many Saw sequels and films that focus on gore and torture coming out on wide release. But this isn't a new phenomenon; think back to the gluttony of Friday the 13th, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street sequels spewed out in the the 80s and early 90s. Studios have been taking acclaimed low-budget horror productions and using them as a template for the next decade of horror film-making for years. So, it seems the next 'big thing' has come around with Oren Peli's ultra low-budget Paranormal Activity. The question is, does it deserve the franchise we may very well see emerge in the future?

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Filmed on a budget of $15,000 (to give you an idea of how low this, both Clerks and the Blair Witch Project were each made on double the cash) in 2007, but was not released until 2009 on a very limited number of screens in the US, until popular demand convinced Paramount Pictures to give the film a wide-release. The crew consisted of one man, Oren Peli, who renovated his house in order to get the film made. There are only two characters worth taking note of: Katie and Micah, a couple played respectively by Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat. Having recently moved into a new house, the couple begin to notice very slight disturbances taking place around them. Katie believes it is a spirit who has been haunting her since youth, and Micah purchases a camera in an attempt to catch every second of the haunting, which mainly occurs at night. The entire film is told through the camera lens, which is generally set-up on a stand in the bedroom at night, making this another POV flick. So if you dislike the subgenre you might as well stop reading now, because you're not going to like Paranormal Activity. Which is a shame as there's a lot to enjoy here.

The story doesn't really go anywhere until the third act of the movie, and follows a fairly typical horror structure. Character development takes place in the first act, with some slightly creepy going-ons taking place; the nature of the terror is given some colour and shape in the second act, and all out hell erupts in the final act. So, it's definitely a simple structure most people will have seen before, but it's used effectively. In terms of narrative, the comparisons to Blair Witch Project are almost impossible to avoid, as stylistically the film borrows a lot from it, although it doesn't do it in a heavy-handed way. The most noticeable similarity between the two is the very vague nature of the actual horror. If you go into Paranormal Activity expecting to get a decent conclusion and some money shots of the entity terrorizing the couple, you're going to be disappointed. There are some references made towards what it might actually be, but most of them seem tacked on, and it seems even Oren Peli couldn't make up his mind quite what he wanted the entity to be. If we follow more traditional spirit and ghost lore, the majority of the haunting takes place as though done by a poltergeist, i.e. a ghost that generally causes havoc such as throwing furniture around. In fact, the entity in Paranormal Activity acts in almost the exact same way as the entity from The Exorcist, but while The Exorcist gave us a tangible connection to the demon that possesses Regan and what it actually is, Paranormal Activity is incredibly vague.

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What hurts the story even more is when they try and connect the haunting to Katie's past, and even to Katie herself directly. It's certainly an interesting concept, but it comes in far too late to actually have much impact on the viewer, as it too suffers from the same problem of just being too damn vague. While some may argue that you need to look below the surface, there simply isn't enough exposition given to allow the plot device to expand and give it the depth it deserved. Peli should either have gone further with the idea, or simply cut it all together.

While the actual story isn't well-developed, the characters certainly are. I struggle to say that Micah and Katie are actually all that likeable; especially Micah, who decides to try to exacerbate the haunting in an attempt to get more footage, regardless of Katie's feelings. But they're well-developed and believable enough that you do care about them, and Paranormal Activity does something rare, which is to show the actual psychological toll that these events have on the characters. The process is very startling and realistic. Micah and Katie are both happy and calm with one another throughout the first act, but as soon as things start to get more intense they become snappier, and even their physical appearance deteriorates, mainly due to the lack of sleep. It's a subtle process, but it's certainly noticeable, and actually shows off some impressive writing in terms of dialogue as the couple slowly mentally shift due to the trauma of the haunting.

But when it comes down to it, in a horror film the story and characters can only get you so far. Paranormal Activity's biggest success is its ability to draw genuine scares from such a basic situation. Most of the scares are actually very simplistic, and consist of small movements, shadows and loud noises, but they all work. I'm normally critical of most films that use the 'loud noise' trick in an attempt to scare the audience, but Paranormal Activity gets away with it simply because the audience has absolutely no idea of what is making that loud noise. In most other horror films it'll be the defined villain or God forbid a friend or pet, but the jump scares are effective because the source is never revealed.

The only real issue I can take with the scares is that it takes a while for the atmosphere and mood to set in. There a couple of early scares, but they don't function as well as some that occur later simply because the film is very slow in the first 40 minutes or so. There isn't even much of a feeling of anticipation, and it comes off more like a sequence of mildly creepy set-pieces than a cohesive haunting. Once the mood has settled however, the film kicks into high gear to deliver some fantastic scares. I also take issue with the climax of the film, as the reveal that takes place too quickly without anywhere near enough build-up.

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Plus, there is a really cheap jump scare and an atrocious use of CGI, which is even more damaging considering the film had worked so well without it up to that point.

Paranormal Activity is going to divide people. Those who dislike the POV style certainly won't like it, as it is serves as the axis of the plot, and I could easily see why some people would consider it slow. Others may be disappointed there is no big monster or ghost reveal. The closest we ever get to actually seeing the entity haunting the couple is a very brief and undefined shadow, and I can understand how this would annoy people if they expected something more conclusive. In my mind though, while the actual over-arching story doesn't quite succeed, the characters and scares make up for it. It's probably the first film to take the Blair Witch Project template and improve upon it, and for that I give it a recommendation. Just don't hold it against me when you find it too slow-moving for your tastes.

Great review, kind of sums up how I feel about it, except I think I liked some of the stuff you didn't, like the ending.

I remember watching it with three friends in pitch darkness...
Fuck me it was scary.


We didn't sleep well that night.

I get the feeling you were a bit tired while writing this, coz of a few silly mistakes I see in it :/

First is more of a nibble than anything else, but the last sentence of the 2nd paragraph I personally find to be too long. It seems like there are commas at spots where dots would have seemed more appropriate.

FargoDog:

The story doesn't really go anywhere until the third act of the movie, and follows a fairly typical horror structure. Character development takes place in the first act, with some slightly creepy going-ons taking place; the nature of the terror is given some colour and shape in the second act, and all out hell erupts in the final act. So, it's definitely a simple structure most people will have seen before, but it's used effectively. In terms of narrative, the comparisons to Blair Witch Project are almost impossible to avoid, as stylistically the film borrows a lot from it, although it doesn't do it in a heavy-handed way. The most noticeable similarity between the two us the very vague nature of the actual horror. If you go into Paranormal Activity expecting to get a decent conclusion and some money shots of the entity terrorizing the couple, you're going to be disappointed. There are some references made towards what it might actually be, but most of them seem tacked on, and it seems even Oren Peli couldn't make up his mind quite what he wanted the entity might be.(it's to be in this context) If we follow more traditional spirit and ghost lore( , the majority of the haunting takes place as though done by a poltergeist, i.e. a ghost that generally causes havoc such as throwing furniture around. In fact, the entity in Paranormal Activity acts in almost the exact same way as the entity from The Exorcist, but while The Exorcist gave us a tangible connection to the demon that possesses Regan and what it actually is, Paranormal Activity is incredibly vague.

What hurts the story even more is when they try and connect the haunting to Katie's past, and even to Katie herself directly. It's certainly an interesting concept, but it comes in far too late to actually have much impact on the viewer, as it too suffers from the same problem of just being too damn vague. While some may argue that you need to look below the surface, there simply isn't enough exposition given to give(using the word 'give' 2 times in rapid succession hurts the flow IMO) this plot device the depth it deserved. Peli should either have gone further with the idea, or simply cut it all together.

While the actual story isn't well-developed, the characters certainly are. I struggle to say that Micah and Katie are actually all that likeable; especially Micah, who decides to try to exacerbate the haunting in an attempt to get more footage, regardless of Katie's feelings. But they're well-developed and believable enough that you don't care about them, and Paranormal Activity does something rare, which is to show the actual psychological toll that these events have on the characters. The process is very startling and realistic. Micah and Katie are both happy and calm with one another throughout the first act, but as soon as things start to get more intense they become snappier, and even their physical appearance deteriorates, mainly due to the lack of sleep. It's a subtle process, but it's certainly noticeable, and actually shows off some impressive writing in terms of dialogue as the couple slowly mentally shift due to the trauma of the haunting.

Voila. Apart from that, it was a solid and pretty content packed review, with a lot of obvious effort that went into it :)

I genuinely liked the vague clues given about the identity of the entity. I probably wouldn't have liked it as much if everything was definite by the movie's end. In a longer movie, perhaps. But in this one, nothing definitive is creepy in its own right. Hopefully the sequels will manage to expand on it plotwise as well as scare wise though, like what REC2 managed to pull off!

Sinclose:
I get the feeling you were a bit tired while writing this, coz of a few silly mistakes I see in it :/

First is more of a nibble than anything else, but the last sentence of the 2nd paragraph I personally find to be too long. It seems like there are commas at spots where dots would have seemed more appropriate.

Snip!

Voila. Apart from that, it was a solid and pretty content packed review, with a lot of obvious effort that went into it :)

I genuinely liked the vague clues given about the identity of the entity. I probably wouldn't have liked it as much if everything was definite by the movie's end. In a longer movie, perhaps. But in this one, nothing definitive is creepy in its own right. Hopefully the sequels will manage to expand on it plotwise as well as scare wise though, like what REC2 managed to pull off!

Thank you for pointing those out, and yes, I am quite tired. I got like three hours sleep last night. But they're fixed now, and I re-edited that sentence.

FargoDog:
The closest we ever get to actually seeing the entity haunting the couple is a very brief and undefined shadow..

..Wait, where was this part? I have seen the movie (and yes, the POV annoyed the fuck out of me, but I managed it to the end with a few good shudders), but I don't remember that part. Have a clip, or more detailed description (in spoiler, of course)?

But regardless, great review once again.

ShadowsofHope:
..Wait, where was this part? I have seen the movie (and yes, the POV annoyed the fuck out of me, but I managed it to the end with a few good shudders), but I don't remember that part. Have a clip, or more detailed description (in spoiler, of course)?

But regardless, great review once again.

FargoDog:

ShadowsofHope:
..Wait, where was this part? I have seen the movie (and yes, the POV annoyed the fuck out of me, but I managed it to the end with a few good shudders), but I don't remember that part. Have a clip, or more detailed description (in spoiler, of course)?

But regardless, great review once again.

Ah, I see.

I'll have to take a skim back over it and try to find that part then. Thanks.

Great review. Doesn't change my view that Paranormal Activity was the most boring film I've ever seen behind New Moon, but it made me realise how good the characters were. I never really thought about the toll it took on them, but now you mention it, it's quite obvious and well done.

A friend convinced me to watch this movie this weekend.
Goodbye sleep for that night.

Anything can easily scare me. Someone who walks up behind me and says something in a normal tone of voice makes me freak out. :/

I genuinely believe that you are me. Except you write better reviews. And more frequently.

Scde2:
A friend convinced me to watch this movie this weekend.
Goodbye sleep for that night.

Anything can easily scare me. Someone who walks up behind me and says something in a normal tone of voice makes me freak out. :/

Good review.

This really is the first handy-cam horror since Blair Witch to actually scare me. As a matter of fact, I'd say it's scarier then Blair Witch, simply because it uses your own home surroundings against you.

I still don't consider this movie to be very good, because like with all "found footage" movies, after the second act I think to myself: Why in God's name are you still taping this? Even when they're in a state of panic and when every normal human being would concentrate on self preservation and the preservation of their loved ones, Micah still keeps filming.
Now, the movie does find a few clever loopholes for this irregularity...

I should try and watch this some time. This is the perfect week for it too. Hmm...

It's a good review, and the only thing "wrong" with it was some of the sentences seemed like run-ons. That's my only complaint. :p

Marter:
I should try and watch this some time. This is the perfect week for it too. Hmm...

It's a good review, and the only thing "wrong" with it was some of the sentences seemed like run-ons. That's my only complaint. :p

There was a lot more wrong with it, then Sinclose took his editing pen to it and now it's nice and presentable. Apart from those run on sentences.

..Which is just nit-picking <.<

Great review Fargo! I especially liked the introduction, quite interesting and informative. Your review helped me better understand parts of the film, and appreciate the characters in a different way.

The POV style has never bothered me, and I found it refreshing to not see bucket loads of gore. Probably one of the more scary and enjoyable horror flicks I've seen recently.

Wow. I'm actually surprised at how much our opinions differ on this film.

As for the review itself, very well done and informitive. If I hadn't seen this already, I would have done just that as per your recommendation and kind words....but then I would have been fucking pissed off at both you and myself for watching it because I despised this movie.

It wasn't the POV style camera either. I typically enjoy that kind of camera work. I just thought it was a poorly written, poorly acted and poorly directed film that got a lot of hype because of its low budget which I personally thought showed horribly.

 

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