So there I was, fresh out of the 92Y Tribeca screening of the delightful and charming Zombie Girl: The Movie, enjoying a few beers with the equally delightful and charming Tenebrous Kate and Baron XIII. And yet I could not completely relish the moment, because hanging over my head was the knowledge that I was minutes away from experiencing--by myself--the one horror film everyone had been telling me not to see by myself.
Granted, I wouldn't technically be by myself, since I would be joined by a packed, sold-out house. It was this exact sold-outedness that had prevented Kate and her beau from joining me. Being the paranoid lunatic that I am, I had managed to purchase my tickets to Paranormal Activity mere moments before it sold out--they, unfortunately, had not.
And so I had a solo ticket to the hottest show in town. The newest indy horror sensation, playing at just one theater in the city of New York, at midnight. Steeling myself for what was to come, I made my way up to Times Square, and took my seat a scant four rows back from the gigantic screen. And while I quickly determined that I was in the midst of a "Girrrrrlll---don't go in that room!!" type of audience, that didn't bother me in the end. Because the impact of Paranormal Activity ran over these unsuspecting souls with all the force of a runaway Peterbilt. It was a hell of a ride, and we were all along for it.
Simply put, Paranormal Activity is what The Blair Witch Project should have been. I make no bones about being sorely disappointed in that film when I first saw it a decade ago. I literally felt as if I had been mugged of my ticket money as I left the theater that night, realizing how a brilliant internet marketing campaign (one of the first of its kind) had gotten me to see this decidedly mediocre and forgettable experiment.
But not this time. This time, as I sat there staring blankly at the pitch black screen that took the place of closing credits, I can honestly say I was in a state of momentary shock at what I had witnessed.
What Paranormal Activity gets right is it creates a growing, gnawing sense of tension and dread that burrows deeper and deeper inside you as the moviegoing experience continues. As opposed to the rather dull and disjointed montage of "amateur" footage that made up Blair Witch, and gave very little payoff until the very end, Paranormal Activity rations out the fear, like a steady drip from a horror I.V. It's also peppered with a liberal dose of natural humor, which breaks things up here and there, just enough to heighten the tension even more when it does return.
Unlike the expendable cardboard characters of Blair Witch, Katie and Micah are people we become invested in. We may not always like them--particularly the bone-headed Micah, who is also the main source of the humor--but we are interested in what will happen to them. And little by little, we are drawn into their situation.
Along the way, there are little payoffs here and there, just enough to keep us wanting more. An unsettling sound; something glimpsed out of the corner of our eyes; and other things I will not give away so as not to soften the grip this film will place on you when you see it.
I will say that the film's only main flaw comes due to the inherent weakness of these documentary-style "reality" horror flicks. Specifically, the sheer mundanity of life itself, with its daily repetitions, does threaten occasionally to undermine the terror that is underlying the proceedings. In the end, there's something to be said for the artificial, heightened reality of traditional film-making--we must admit it's far more fascinating than real life as it actually is.
That said, Paranormal Activity does an infinitely better job of balancing out this low-key monotony with just enough of the unusual and unexpected to keep us interested--whereas Blair Witch became so concerned with seeming realistic that it only succeeded in manufacturing the tedium of everyday reality, and what scares there were felt faked (until the very end, which I will reiterate, I've always found to be very strong).
Clearly, Paranormal Activity writer/director Oren Peli has learned from the lessons of Blair Witch, as he manages to make it all so very convincing, both the reality of the characters, and of the unnatural horror they face. For this reason, I cannot stress enough that if you chance to see this film and find yourself losing a bit of patience in the beginning--trust me, stick with it. The pacing of this film is of the utmost importance, and things get hairier and hairier as we move along.
Case in point: The bedtime footage that dominates much of the movie. See, Micah installs a video camera in their bedroom to record what goes on while they sleep, in an attempt to catch the titular activity on tape. And while these scenes were among the sources of the slightly annoying repetition for me, they also are of crucial importance, as things slowly get worse and worse during these specific times. In the beginning I found myself regarding the beginning of each of these scenes with frustration, since nothing much was happening--but later, I would greet each one with a sense of dread, since I didn't know what might be happening next. And in the end, I think that evolving reaction was perfectly appropriate.
As for the ending, it was reminiscent of Blair Witch in the way it strove to leave the viewer with a truly bizarre, terrifying and unexplainable finish to the events of the movie. And it does so--but to much greater effect, since it involves characters with whom we feel much better acquainted. Also, the over-the-top ostentatiousness of it is that much more powerful in contrast to the subtlety of most of the preceding 100 minutes. Yet it doesn't go too far and show too much--rather, it's just enough. Just enough to leave you sitting perfectly still and having to remind yourself to breath once it's finally over.
A couple of unfortunate and rather vocal idiots in my audience expressed their disapproval once it was over, I will admit. These are the same types who did so with the ending of Blair Witch--resumably they were expecting something more along the lines of Friday the 13th or Saw, with all the subtlety and finesse of a Coney Island hot dog eating contest. But they were quickly drowned out by the recovered masses who saw fit to applaud the film--in part, one would assume, out of a need to counteract the mumblings of the detractors.
If you're looking for a film to genuinely frighten you, this is certainly it. Paranormal Activity lives up to the hype in that regard. It's a rather low-key, patient, yet masterfully executed fright film, that in the end delivers exactly what it's supposed to. See it if you can, and yes, I will now agree that it is most definitely better not to see it alone.
Driving home from Manhattan to Connecticut on a Friday night is never fun--but doing it by myself after seeing this thing was decidedly less so. I've always felt that those who are naturally predisposed to liking horror are the same people it seems to profoundly effect and disturb the most; whereas the ones who don't like or "get" it tend to be those for whom it has no power to frighten. If you are one of the "predisposed", then you can rest assured that this is going to be a film that stays with you.
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