Monday, October 19, 2009

Paranormal Activity (2007)

Note: This review was originally posted on Bridge To Better Days. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

Do you know that feeling you get sometimes, when your blood chills, and your skin gets all tingly? It's not a feeling of action, like when something attacks you and you feel compelled to act, but a feeling of frightened anticipation. Your senses heighten and you start breathing rapidly, as you scan your surroundings. You know there's something there, and you know it is a threatening force, but you don't know exactly what it is, or even what it has the ability to do.

When I was a kid, scary movies scared me. Alien gave me recurring nightmares, and The Exorcist made me feel ill. I am a huge horror fan these days, and I love watching scary movies. Scary movies entertain me. But rarely do they genuinely scare me. When I watch Alien now, I still very much enjoy it, and I can appreciate the details that make it not only a very good, but a very scary movie. But it no longer gives me nightmares. It doesn't cause me to feel nervous at night when I find myself in a dark hallway.

I don't need to be genuinely scared to enjoy a scary movie. Scary movies have all sorts of merits above and beyond that. But a movie that actually manages to genuinely scare me - me, a mature (well, that may be debatable) adult - that's something special. And there are few things that genuinely scare me in movies. When I see a movie, I know it's fiction. It's usually easy for me to engage my suspension of disbelief and get absorbed in the movie, but when the credits roll, I disengage, and I understand that what I just saw wasn't real - it was a fantasy. So I don't remain frightened of the serial killer or the ugly monster as I leave the theater and return to my real life.

But there are some themes, some images, some concepts, that are genuinely scary to me, such that engaging in that fear in the theater touches on some real fear inside of me, that exists and remains regardless of the fictional nature of the film. Two things that do this to me are ghosts and aliens. And not just any ghosts or aliens, but specific portrayals of ghosts and aliens. Few images alone have the power to touch that nerve of primal fear in me, and one of them is the stereotypical shape of a grey's face. I don't know why, but it frightens me. Of course, accompanying that face is the whole folklore of alien abduction - being snatched out of your bed and having painful medical experiments performed on you against your will in an unfamiliar, even unearthly, location. Whether or not I actually believe in such encounters is a moot point - the idea of it genuinely frightens me.

The other thing that scares me is ghosts. Not CG ghosts and elaborate special effects, but the idea of the unseen undead. The fact that they have abilities above and beyond the realm of what we understand to be possible, and that we can't simply nail them down into a certain visible form and say - here, this is a ghost, become familiar with it so that we may no longer be afraid. It is that primal fear of the unknown.

I love creature effects. I love over-the-top creature effects. Even when it doesn't look realistic, as long as it looks awesome, I love it. But monsters are gross, they're not scary. They can be ugly, they can be disgusting, and their presence can be scary, but there is a world of difference between a physical beast standing before you in all its ugliness, and an ethereal form that you cannot see or touch: a thing of great evil hiding in the shadows; one that is not restrained by the limits of physical reality, but is able to manifest at will in the form of your darkest imaginings, by avenue of not having a form. It's not that it becomes what you fear, but that you fear it all the more because you cannot pin down its fearsomeness. It transcends fear.

There's been a lot of hype about Paranormal Activity, and also an inevitable backlash. Usually, in these cases, the best course of action is to see the movie and decide for oneself what merits it may have. Of course, advertisers know this, and are not above playing off of that formula, artificially injecting hype into a project. Artificial hype inevitably leads to backlash, thus fueling the scenario. But then, wary consumers are hesitant to support the lie. Not knowing if the hype is true or not, you just have to take a risk.

I took the risk. And it paid off. I can tell you this: the hype surrounding Paranormal Activity is true. It's the scariest movie I've seen since before I stopped being the little kid who was afraid of the dark. But what's also true is the fact that not everyone will be scared by it. If you're not scared by the brand of fear that Paranormal Activity employs, then you're likely not to think much of the film.

It's not a "good movie" in terms of having great characters, an intriguing plot, lots of action, etc. Paranormal Activity isn't really a "movie", it's more of an "experience". It's similar to The Blair Witch Project. If you thought The Blair Witch Project was scary (and I did), you'll like Paranormal Activity. If you thought The Blair Witch Project was stupid and very un-scary, you probably won't like Paranormal Activity. If you enjoy watching 'haunted house' and 'ghost hunting' programs on television, you'll enjoy this movie.

I don't believe in ghosts. I don't even think those ghost hunting programs are usually all that convincing. But the concept scares me. Being in a dark house at night, hearing strange noises, evidence apparently suggesting the presence of another being even though physically it would be impossible. I don't believe those programs, and I don't think their ghosts are real. But they do scare me. I can place myself in a frame of mind, where my imagination allows for the possibility of such impossibilities. And it terrifies me. The idea of being in a room all alone, but not actually being alone. Sensing a presence that cannot be seen or felt. A presence that knows just how to get a rise out of me by making a loud thump here, a quiet whine there. That's the sort of thing that gets the hairs on my arms standing. And that's the kind of scare that Paranormal Activity delivers.

So forget about the hype for a minute, and just think about the concept. A couple who video records evidence of a haunting, which progressively gets worse as the nights pass. You already have a pretty good idea if it's the kind of film you'll enjoy, or be scared by. You won't be grossed out by over-the-top creature effects, that's for sure, but if it's the old-fashioned 'bump in the night' that terrifies you, you'll be sure to have a few nightmares after seeing Paranormal Activity.

P.S. The audience reaction was great. I haven't experienced an audience reaction this good since Grindhouse - and that was more a reaction of entertainment. In this case, it was a reaction of fear!