The abnormal “Paranormal Activity”

By Dan Cohen

Did the pioneers of  “Cinema Verite,” documentary filmmakers of the fifties and early sixties–like New York’s Maysles Brothers or the Canada’s Alan King–ever think their technique would be used in fiction?  Beyond that, did they foresee a day when two of the most profitable narrative films in movie history looked and sounded like their scrappy non fiction?  Or that they would be horror movies?

Strange but true.  First “The Blair Witch Project,” and now “Paranormal Activity,” owe every frame of their spectacular popularity to what the French called the “cinema of truth.” And ironically, both films honor and trash the tradition in the same breath.

“Verite” is simply a method of capturing real behavior by making the camera crew as unobtrusive as possible.  Ideally, the filmmaker sets up the equipment and then lets life dictate the direction the material takes. This is well suited to the purposes of documentary, but also quite a challenge, as the arc of the story may not develop until the editing process.  It’s almost the complete opposite of scripted filmmaking.  And yet the style, or the look, has found a welcome home in everything from low budget American indies to the “Dogma” school founded by the Danish Lars Von Trier.

One of the first, and probably best known practitioners of “verite” in dramatic narrative was John Cassavettes, an actor turned director who broke through in the late sixties with a handful of jolting, semi improvised dramas. Among them, “Faces,” “A Woman Under the Influence,” and “Husbands,” (recently released on DVD.)

Cassavettes realized that smaller cameras that moved with the characters could create a greater feeling of intimacy.  His direction was noted for long, unbroken takes, natural lighting, and a raw, shaky cam look. He also had a penchant for getting extremely close to his actors, exposing every physical tic and facial imperfection, which resulted in a kind of hyper realism.  The films found world wide acclaim.

But nobody ever saw the style migrating to the horror genre, which generally employed more artifice, as opposed to less. Horror films usually take full advantage of lighting, sets, and effects.  They almost demand a heightened sense of unreality. An alternate reality, close to that of dreams.

Then along came “Blair Witch Trial.”  The idea was simple; three film students head out to do a little witch hunting in rural Maryland.  They take along a couple of cameras, which end up functioning as diaries for their two days in the woods. The cameras, it turns out, are the only survivors.  The footage; raw, and unlit, although highly edited, is presented as the “real” record of the expedition. It was all contrived, but it didn’t seem that way.

No witches appeared. No curses played out.  The growing sense of the unknown, coupled with a handful of inanimate “signs” suggesting that witch craft might be about, was enough to create a palpable sense of fear among the students, and a lot of the audience.

There was no resolution, other than the students’ disappearance. That proved to be enough for the huge audience.  But “Blair’s” success proved impossible to replicate.  A number of imitators failed to interest any but die hard horror fans. The style seemed to die with these pretenders.

But in the past year or so there’ve been a couple of cleverly rigged thrillers that exploit the verite style. “Cloverfield,” is a monster movie as seen from a home video recorder.  “Rec,” remade from a Spanish language film of the same name, is about a flesh ravaging virus that attacks the occupants of a small apartment building. Every moment is seen from the camera of a news team that gets locked in the building along with a crew of fire fighters who respond to a 911 call.  Both films, modestly budgeted in studio terms, work like documentaries.  And both scared up large grosses.

But there’s never been anything quite like “Paranormal Activity.”  Shot in six days, in one location, for a reported $15,000, starring virtual amateurs, this is a well calculated horror film that exploits our feelings about sleep. It taps the same fears as the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series, but on a much more subtle level

The premise is basic. A young techno geek brings home a high end digital camera when his live in girlfriend complains of being plagued by a nocturnal spirit. As the story begins, Micha, the boyfriend, has begun recording their day to day activities.  We see them eat, swim in their pool, engage in hobbies, and quarrel, mainly about the existence of this phantom. Most of this is very dull.

The couple is as ordinary as they can be, both physically and psychologically.   The only unusual element is Katie’s complaint about this spirit presence, that’s haunted her since childhood. And now Micha has to deal with it.  But short of a few very funny lines there’s little in the way of snappy dialogue. The script is as ordinary and slack as the characters.  For the first thirty minutes or so there’s very little to distinguish them or the movie.

A college professor who specializes in the spirit world drops by to counsel Katie about her experiences.  His dialogue, about the difference between ghosts and demons, comes off as utter nonsense, something more apropos an overblown farce like “Drag Me to Hell.”  In addition his performance is uninspired, although it’s hard to lay too much blame on the actor–the lines are so hokey nobody could have made them work.  So far, the film has hardly registered.

But then comes night. Micah places the camera opposite their bed. They fall asleep. The camera, now recording images in an eerie monochrome, begins to see very small things in the dark.  Slowly the tone changes.

With canny precision the movie takes full advantage of a compelling incongruity between the day and night.  We wonder if something is stalking these two, now completely vulnerable in sleep.  The movie moves ever so delicately from the banal to the disturbing. From this point forward it’s harder and harder to resist.

The succeeding days and nights, and the accompanying deterioration of Micah and Katie’s mental condition, gets under our skin.  The claustrophobic environment, heightened by the camera’s stationery position, adds to the tension.  When the end comes, a precisely crafted shock brings the story to a satisfying resolution, at the same time it makes us hanker for more.

This is a crafty, devious piece of work.  The bare bones production along with the tedious first act, lull us into a false sense of security. We become convinced that we’re above being involved with both the characters and the movie’s artless style. Then it plays its strong suit, completely defying our expectations.  And that, I believe is what makes it such a must see; it’s like a homeless guy on your block who one day, unexpectedly, begins to recite Shakespeare, with perfect diction. You just want to talk to the guy!

Even if you hate this movie you have to give writer director Oren Peli credit for making something out of virtually nothing. There’s no splatter or visual effects. Nothing flashy in the editing or sound design.  In a sense Peli shows rigorous discipline.  And if you do find his film intriguing on any level, you have to wonder what else he has in mind.

There’s an interesting back story as to how “Paranormal Activity” made it to the theaters.  After several major festival screenings in 2007, and after no distributors made offers to release the movie to theaters, executives at Dreamworks got interested, perhaps in remaking it with a respectable budget. They toyed with several plans, but its look and semi professional cast made it an unlikely candidate for mainstream success.

As the story goes, their boss, Steven Spielberg, took the DVD home.  From there, accounts vary.  Some say he got bored, stopped watching halfway through, and returned it to his execs in a garbage bag.  Others said he was so freaked out he put it in a garbage bag and sent it back because he was afraid to touch it. There’s another offshoot of this story that says he became locked in his bedroom and had to summon help to get out while he watched it. All of this made for a good Hollywood whisper.

The film was cut down from 95 minutes to 85, the ending reshot, (actually there are three alleged to be out there somewhere) and polished. But not too much.  The Dreamworks people maintained the movies integrity, which was all it had in its corner.

Wildly popular midnight screenings led to wider viewer interest, which led Paramount to execute an on line and TV campaign, with virtually no print ads in newspapers.  The movie has taken off, moved from ten cities to many more, and so far, grossed 60 million.

Last week, the latest “Saw,” was dropped into 3000 theaters. Ticket sales came in at around 14 million, not bad for a movie that probably cost less than 10 million.  But “Paranormal Activity,” playing at 1100 theaters, made 21 million.  At the end of its run it will probably amass more than 100.

So what do we make of all this?  It’s a phenomenon, pure and simple.  It’s also a testament to the enduring power and diversity of what gets lumped together under the category of “horror.”  This is a genre that ranges from “Psycho” to “Carrie,” to “Rosemary’s Baby,” from the profoundly disturbing, (“The Shining,”) to the profoundly nauseating, (Hostel.)

Is “Paranormal Activity” a high point for horror, or a lucky over achiever?  At this point I’m not sure. Some people will lose sleep over it, others will sleep through it.  In any case, I bet it will be with us for a long time to come.

Updated: October 31, 2009 — 1:37 am

1 Comment

  1. I wonder how much of the actual money, the people who made Paranormal Activity, got, if anything, of the 60 million dream works has collected so far.

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