Just when it seemed certain that the surprise success encountered by The Blair Witch Project was a fluke and a once-off – it’s been ten years, after all, since that creepy shoestring spook fest emerged from nowhere to become an international box office behemoth – another American film financed on a similarly miniscule budget has been greeted with similarly phenomenal success.
Paranormal Activity is a bogus home movie about a young couple who try to capture on film a malevolent ghost who haunts them at night. It’s a no frills camcorder-shot thriller that cost around US$11,000 to make, a figure not too far off the cost of sandwich catering for your average Hollywood studio flick. So far it’s pocketed more than US$100 million, with much more business to come.
Like Blair Witch, the film is contrived to appear as if it were shot by the participants themselves, their footage later “discovered” and released worldwide in feature film format – for posterity and public awareness, of course, not anything to do with collecting dosh at the box office. But the most interesting similarity to Blair Witch is the manner with which Paranormal Activity was promoted and distributed, particularly the use of innovative online strategies that have proved remarkably effective in demonstrating the virtues of that timeless marketing adage: sell the sizzle and not the sausage.
Katie (Katie Featherston) is convinced that an evil spirit is following her and Micah (Micah Sloat) is the obligatory nonbeliever who laughs in the face of all this oogie boogie nonsense, the audience silently assured that he will later suffer for his nay saying. The foolhardy youngsters endeavour to make the mother of all home movies, egging the ghost on to visit them and keeping their camcorder recording while they sleep. Sooner or later ol’ cranky pants decides to freak them out good and proper.
The script, penned by Oren Peli (who also directed) conveniently sidesteps the obvious hole in the premise – that the characters could simply pack up shop and go somewhere else – by having an occult expert announce, deeply spooked by the house’s gnarly vibes, that their ain’t no point moving because the spirit will follow Katie like a docile puppy wherever she goes.
Peli takes the audience back to ghost story basics: doors slam, floorboards creak, the stairs go pitter patter, inexplicable groans and gusts of wind enter in the dead of the night. For a long time nothing much happens – in fact, nothing much happens throughout, especially in lieu of today’s chintzy seat-of-yer-pants standards – but the one thing Paranormal Activity gets absolutely right is an eerie atmosphere. It is indefinably tense and disquieting, though in strictly aesthetic terms there is virtually no meat on the bone: no frills, precious few SFX. In some ways that makes the achievement more impressive. In other ways it accentuates what the film really is: slabs of not-much-happens moments which achieve a high degree of realism because of their point blank refusal to embrace the most basic of cinematic conventions, like carefully written dialogue, well framed compositions etcetera etcetera.
Peli understands that real cinematic fear comes from what’s not on the screen, the sensation that the real terror is lingering just off frame. Peli hones in on the character’s reactions, which is what causes most of the trepidation, thus the strength of the performances is paramount because without them everything else would fall down. Featherston and Sloat do a great job feigning white hot horror and to them the film owes much of its success. But at the end of the day the dialogue is irritatingly prosaic, the characterisations are thin, the visual structure practically nonexistent, the pace slow, the plotline clunky. Atmosphere can only count for so much. The Blair Witch Project’s ballsy sense of innovation was enthralling, and more than enough to carry it across the line. Paranormal Activity lacks that spark of skinflint genius.
Still, it’s creepy.
Paranormal Activity’s Australian theatrical release date: December 3, 2009.