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'Paranormal Activity' remains a terrifying experience even on the small screen

paranormal activity


"I know something about opening windows and doors

Micah Sloat (above) and Katie Featherston (below) are the main stars of "Paranormal Activity."
Micah Sloat (above) and Katie Featherston (below) are the main stars of "Paranormal Activity."
Paramount Pictures
Movie poster for 'Paranormal Activity'
Paramount Pictures

I know how to move quietly to creep across creaky wooden floors

I know where to find precious things in all your cupboards and drawers

Slipping the clippers

Slipping the clippers through the telephone wires

The sense of isolation inspires

Inspires me

I like to feel the suspense when I'm certain you know I am there

I like you lying awake, your baited breath charging the air

I like the touch and the smell of all the pretty dresses you wear

Intruder’s happy in the dark

Intruder come

Intruder come and leave his mark, leave his mark

I am the intruder..."

-from "Intruder" by Peter Gabriel

(sounds even scarier when he sings it in German!)

I finally got around to seeing “Paranormal Activity” on Blu-Ray, and I have say that I truly regret not seeing this movie when it was on the big screen. How great it must have been to take in the audience's reaction to this one; watching all the ladies shriek and recoil into their lovers' arms, and seeing guys who think they are so fearless and yet jump out of their seats during some of this movie's scariest scenes. It would have been like when I first saw "The Blair Witch Project" back in Irvine at a crowded art house movie theater that was never as packed as it was when I went there before. The last scene had us completely freaked out, wondering if what we saw was real or fiction. We should have known that going in, but I'm not sure how much of a difference it would have made for me.

"Paranormal Activity" is an ingenious little horror movie that cost only $15,000 (excluding marketing costs) to make, and which has since made over $140 million dollars worldwide. It has joined the likes of "The Blair Witch Project" and John Carpenter's "Halloween" as one of the most profitable independent films ever made. It was released through Paramount Pictures which employed a unique strategy where audiences had to "demand" for it to be shown in their area via the internet. This strategy is probably what kept me from seeing the movie initially because prints of it had already been sent out to theaters all over the country, so the whole idea of participation was just an illusion to get people excited because they are led to believe they have the power even though they don’t. But past the overblown promotion which threatened to upstage it completely, "Paranormal Activity" is one of the most unnerving horror movies I have seen in a long time. In fact, I almost found it to be almost as unnerving as Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist" which is far more explicit in what it shows.

Paranormal is one of those words I think I know the meaning of, but I came to realize that I'm just fooling myself. The word paranormal is a term used to describe unusual experiences that are outside of science's ability to explain or measure (I think Dan Aykroyd has a PHD in this). That's exactly what's going on in the home of Micah and Katie, a normal looking couple when we first meet them. Micah has recently purchased a video camera (a high definition one, not a much cheap camcorder like the kind everybody else has) to capture what happens when they sleep at night. Katie has confessed to Micah and a psychic that a ghost has been haunting her ever since she was little, and she now believes that it has followed here to the house in San Diego she shares with Micah. The both of them are told by the psychic that this ghost is really a demon that feeds off of negative energy, and that it will pursue poor Katie anywhere and everywhere she goes. From the start, you know that this is not going to end well for anybody.

Micah Sloat, like Katie Featherston, uses his first name for the character he plays. With him parading the camera around the house, he feels like a character that could have easily been in George Romero's "Diary Of The Dead." Like those college students studying film, Micah seems more interested in catching paranormal activity happening more than he is in helping Katie until later on. If it didn’t happen on film, then it didn't happen at all, so he is everywhere with this very expensive camera that I cannot afford at this point in my life, and completely annoying Katie in the process. You get the feeling very quickly that he is not taking his live in girlfriend all that seriously (and the psychic even less), and he feels that this is just a childhood nightmare that has scarred her to where she cannot forget about it. But he soon discovers that there is some force intruding on their well-being while they sleep, and it puts them in the most vulnerable position possible. Still, he stays with her which shows that he does care about her more than he cares about himself. Either that, or he wants to be the one who cures Katie of her nightmarish affliction.

Don't worry, I'm not going into a scene for scene breakdown to where I give away the best moments of "Paranormal Activity" as it is full of many hair raising, jump out of your seat moments that deserve to be discovered with your own eyes if you dare. With a budget that equates to how much Justin Bieber’s haircut cost, director Oren Peli utilizes special effects that are very simple in their construction, yet incredibly effective whenever used. As far as I can tell, no CGI is used here, and if it was used I can hardly tell. By filming in a typical suburban house (the director's own home I might add), it feels no different from the homes we grew up in. There's nothing extravagant in what is shown here, and that's exactly the point. The more this home reminds you of your own, the scarier this movie becomes.

The suspense and tension that continually escalates throughout “Paranormal Activity” is accomplished through the power of suggestion. It does not contain the gallons of blood and gore most films in this genre appear to require. Not that I have any issues with gory movies as I have seen lord only knows how many of them in my lifetime; the way I see it, the gore the merrier. But what I find makes a horror movie all the more effective is when the filmmakers don't you show everything, if anything at all. It's what you think you see that really messes with your head. It forces your own fears and superstitions onto these characters, and you share their restless nights throughout the film’s 90 minute running time.

Watching "Paranormal Activity" reminded me of a story my dad said he heard as a kid which scared him half to death. It involved some guy on TV talking directly to the camera about how that sound you heard behind you was probably nothing, or so you would think. But what if it was something sinister? What if that feeling of someone coming up from behind you was not just a feeling? Anyway, the more my dad talked about, the scarier it seemed.

Actually, the movie reminded me of an old time radio program I heard one night as a kid called "The Sealed Book." It involved this girl whose uncle said he saw some deceased relative staring at him when no one else could. Later on, the uncle ends up dead after yelling out this relative's name while in his bedroom. Next thing you know, this girl sees the same dead relative and becomes haunted by him until she goes crazy. That damn radio program made it impossible for me to fall asleep, especially when she is confronted by the relative who only she can see of course. Despite her pleading, he responds to her and says:

"Your time has come! GIVE ME YOUR HAND!!!"

I listened to that radio program when I was about ten or eleven. After that, I never listened to any other episodes of that show as a result.

Anyway, I bring all that up because "Paranormal Activity" gets at a fear so universal and primal as we try to get a good night's sleep (which seems impossible these days without something like Ambien). Those little noises you hear right around you... What if they're not just noises? What if someone is in the room with you? What if you didn't lock all the doors and bolt all the windows? Peli plays on all those sounds that keep us awake when we just want to sleep, and the shocks these characters end up enduring easily resemble the ones we have all experienced. It was a huge mistake on my part to watch this film at night before I went to bed, Then again, I should have thought a little harder about watching it at that time of day. That was as big a miscalculation on my part just as much as eating dinner while watching the original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre." I figured being a 70's movie, it would not be as scary as when it first came out. But like “Paranormal Activity,” I came to see that certain horror movies can still stand the test of time.

I have written an article on my favorite film scores of the 00's, and that brings me to a really interesting point about this film; it has no score nor any music other than that video Micah watches at the beginning. A lot of movies benefit from a music score which escalates or increases the power of emotion that the director has already captured on celluloid or whatever they use for film these days. But like "The China Syndrome" or Michael Haneke's "Cache," "Paranormal Activity" is incredibly intense without it. In fact, I think it would have suffered if it did have a score, and it would have made several moments seem very anticlimactic and premature (and we all hate things premature!) as a result. The sound of loud footsteps from someone you're not sure you know in the dark is scary enough as it is.

As for the actors, I have to give them a lot of credit. What Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston do is not so much act as inhabit the characters that they play. They are not called upon to be Meryl Streep or Daniel Day Lewis. If we were to actually catch them acting, the illusion of the movie would have been completely destroyed. What both succeed in doing is acting naturally, and they make us recognize ourselves in them. We quickly come to recognize their fear and relate to it in a way we would rather not experience on a regular basis. The fact that these two were unknowns when this movie came out only elevates the sheer terror we feel for them as their predicament gets much, much worse.

I also have to give just as much credit to Mark Fredrichs who plays the psychic who visits Micah's and Katie's home. This role could have been an absolute cliché, one guy who comes across as a madman that no one ever fully believes until it is too late. Seriously, this guy could have been just like that crazy old man from the first couple of "Friday The 13th" movies who kept warning all those camp counselors:

"You're doomed! YOU'RE ALL DOOMED!!!!"

But Mark makes someone you wouldn't trust once you realize who he is a down to earth guy whose fear is quite palpable when he enters the peaceful looking home Mark never overdoes anything here, and he more normal he comes across, the scarier this situation gets. While the psychic is only on screen for a brief time, it is long enough to where he makes a forceful impression of impending doom.

They say "silence is golden," but mainly so that you turn your damn cell phones off before the movie starts. But it truly is golden in "Paranormal Activity" because we experience those huge shocks all the more vividly. We've all had nights where we lie in bed and here something fall in another part of the house. But maybe that thing didn't fall on its own accord. Maybe someone pushed it off to get our attention, to lure us out of our safety zone. Most movies are jam packed today with noise, but Oren Peli recognizes how powerful the lack of sound can be, and he uses it to brilliant effect. I don't know about you, but I need to be listening to something like soft music as I fall asleep. The quietness of the night has my mind racing when it should be resting.

It doesn't surprise me that this new movie phenomenon is generating the different responses it is from audiences of all kinds. Some will despise it as essentially a gimmick while lacking (as they see it) the mandatory blood, gore, and occasional impalement or decapitation. Others will hail it as a new horror masterpiece that leaves us extremely unsettled after having watched it. For me, this movie is definitely on the same level with "The Blair Witch Project," a movie that Oren Peli's feature film directing debut owes a huge debt to. It doesn't try to blow us away with an overabundance of special effects, but with simplicity and trust that the ordinary things are far more terrifying than the monsters who wear hockey masks. Seeing a chandelier swaying back and forth definitely throws off my balance and makes me feel wide awake and thinking about survival, my own to be exact.

Okay, I need to stop writing about this movie now. The thought of it is freaking me out, and I'm going to end up ripping down the shower curtain in my bathroom if I'm not careful!

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