‘Paranormal Activity’: Somewhere Hitchcock is smiling
Just for the record, the time to tell your significant other that an evil force has been stalking you since you were 8 is long before you’re engaged and have moved in together.
I’m not suggesting the whole demon/ghost/unidentified whatever is a deal breaker, but it should at least get a mention.
Consider the case of Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat), the young couple at the terrifying center of “Paranormal Activity.” By the time Katie tells Micah about her “problem” and by the time Micah takes it seriously, that “thing that goes bump in the night” has really built up a head of steam.
Before the lights go back up -- and at some point you may wonder whether they ever will -- there will be a very tight coil of anxiety buried deep in your gut that is very hard to get rid of.
The man to curse for all this darkness is Israeli-born writer-director Oren Peli, a video-game designer turned filmmaker who has created a psychological thriller of such small scale and yet such heightened effect that no doubt Hitchcock, wherever he may be, is smiling. That the film was shot over just a few days in the director’s house, with no money, no stars and no studio involved until much, much later, is a testament to Peli’s natural instincts. Though the story does not have either the sophistication or the complexity of the master, the first-time director understands that it’s what you don’t see, and the way in which you don’t see it, that counts.
The film is set in the comfortable affluence of a San Diego suburb, where bad things aren’t supposed to happen. We’re dropped into Katie and Micah’s lives just as Micah is setting up a DIY surveillance system so that he can record any suspicious activity in the house.
As he begins shooting footage and talking to Katie, we realize that he’s merely going to elaborate lengths to prove that she is just imagining things.
Night after night, the time-lapse camera keeps its unblinking eye on their bedroom, where most of the action takes place. That footage, along with the free-style video that Micah shoots himself, is our primary point of view on this story, which works to add a certain veracity in a YouTube/Facebook way. Though the footage looks real enough, you can also sense a bona-fide filmmaker’s hand in the proceedings.
There’s not much to the story: Evil has its eye on Katie, the couple tries to escape or outwit it, and we know historically how that tends to go. There is lots of scary stuff in between and, in this case, very little comic relief beyond the psychic/ghost-buster who makes house calls.
Featherston and Sloat do a good job as the couple in the middle of the mess, as they swing between bickering about the thing and being frightened by it.
Now about that scary stuff. We humans must come with a genetic marker clearly labeled “fear of the unknown.” How else to explain why your breathing stops, stomach clenches and you suddenly develop bat ears in the face of the mundane -- a light goes off, a door closes. The trick, of course, comes in not being able to explain the who, what and why of it.
Peli works at mining the unknown, the unknowable, like a minimalist, using small moments and virtually no special effects exceedingly well. As so often is the case in the horror genre, the world he’s created for Katie and Micah is a closed one -- if they leave the house, we don’t see it; friends and relatives don’t drop by.
Like “The Blair Witch Project,” another faux documentary-style horror movie, “Paranormal Activity” has been building buzz on the Internet, where, according to crazed publicity dispatches from the studio that I’m pretty sure are part of a guerrilla-style marketing campaign, fans “demanded” that it be put in theaters immediately. (I didn’t realize you could do that, because I’ve been wanting to see “My Friend Flicka” on the big screen forever.)
You can understand why studios would be keen to make these fans happy, since “Blair Witch” cost roughly $60,000 and went on to make $248.6 million worldwide. Compared with “Blair Witch,” “Paranormal” was made on the cheap, with a budget of around $15,000. With midnight screenings selling out, even with marketing costs, this film will soon be wallowing in gravy.
Meanwhile, Peli’s at work on a new thriller, “Area 51,” this time with a real budget and Hollywood muscle behind him. You just hope he doesn’t lose his scary along the way.
MPAA rating: R for language
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: In limited release, locally at ArcLight Hollywood, midnight screenings only