Thursday, December 31, 2009

Borrowing a Ouija Board Is Different Than Buying One

I watched Paranormal Activity. My verdict follows this word.

Paranormal Activity (2009)
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat
Rating: 6.5 (out of 10)

An even 10 years after The Blair Witch Project offered up a relatively fresh take on the horror genre, Paranormal Activity shows up to alter that formula ever so slightly. Much like the kids in Blair Witch, Katie and Micah find themselves hostage in a seemingly safe environment, and it's a place we can all picture ourselves being in: their home.

We find out early on that Micah and Katie have recently moved into a new home together, and that they've been dating a few years. Everything we see is taken directly from Micah's fancy new camera. It turns out Katie has been having strange things happen to her since she was eight years old, and just recently these incidents have been cropping up again after years of lying dormant. She thinks she has seen strange things and even heard voices. Micah's idea is to place his new camera in their bedroom so that any strange occurrences will be on tape for them to figure out. Katie isn't too fond of the idea, but she eventually lets him have his way.

Without giving too much away, strange things do continue to happen. Katie explains the full story of what she experienced as a child, and she starts to get more and more freaked out as things continue to go bump in the night. Micah, on the other hand, sort of thinks these developments are cool and interesting. He spends most of his free time on his laptop trying to analyze what was caught on camera the night before. He becomes somewhat obsessed, but he doesn't want any help. When a psychic comes over to give the couple some advice, he tells them that he senses an evil presence, and that they should make sure they don't anger it by calling it out (i.e. using a ouija board). Doing so could bring whatever is there into an angry state. Micah feels like he knows what's best for them, so he shuns these words of wisdom and goes on his own path. His bull-headed ways wedge a divide between he and Katie, and as things continue to spiral out of control, they don't even fully have each other to lean on.

Paranormal Activity, much like Blair Witch before it, preys on the viewer's imagination. This movie is scary because of the places it makes each individual mind go, not because it tells the viewer it is. You won't see the big, dumb, bloody scenes that dominate most horror outings these days. You will, however, see plenty of subtle, unnerving images that will make active imaginations drift into some dark places. After all, we can always imagine something far more terrifying than reality. I can certainly see how this film would be a divisive one, though. Those who are more visually-oriented might be bored by all the time the film's makers take in setting everything up and building tension.

Another similarity to Blair Witch lies in the way we view the proceedings. Everything we see is through the lense of Micah's camera. Thankfully, the camera stays mostly steady, so no one is likely to complain of a headache or dizziness like they did when viewing Blair Witch or Cloverfield. The movie also shuns true credits in order to make everything appear to be a documentary about a true event. Of course we know it isn't, but this adds to the "this shit could happen to anyone" aspect the filmmakers were going for. And ultimately, that's what makes horror tick. The viewer needs to be scared for the characters on screen, and that is usually accomplished by putting them in positions that could theoretically happen to anyone. It's for this reason that I'm much more likely to be creeped out by Paranormal Activity than some shitty, blood-soaked mess like Halloween II. While not on par with Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity still holds its own.

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