10/5/09

R096 Paranormal Activity

(2007, Horror, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy

We are Legion, and we're all quiet comfy here.

Rating: ***

In a Nutshell:


An incorporeal demon haunts a couple’s home movies.

Summary:

Like the poster shot of Katie getting tramautized?  Don't worry, you'll be seeing it again.Bright Young Thing Katie hears spooky noises and feels an evil presence at night, as she has intermittently since she was a child. Her boyfriend/roommate Micah (pronounced Mee-Kah for some reason) has started hearing the noises too, though apparently he’s not sensitive enough feel the evil presence. This is hardly surprising; he’s barely sensitive enough to have a girlfriend.

Mee-Kah buys an unwieldy camera so they can film themselves sleeping. (The entire movie is from his camera’s point of view.) Capturing the noises, door swinging and light on-and-off-turning shenanigans on video proves that the nighttime disturbances are real, at least to an extent. Katie calls in a psychic.

Though Mee-Kah is barely civil, the psychic retains his composure throughout the interview and subsequent tour, somehow coming off as the only normal, reasonable person in the movie. He rules out the possibility of it being a ghost, which is his area of expertise. He gives them the number of a reliable demonologist and advises them not to antagonize their infernal houseguest until the appropriate expert arrives.

Yep, there it is.  Pause the movie at any random spot and this is what you're likely to get.Mee-Kah, however, is a gigantic tool. Despite photographic evidence of otherworldly intruders that he himself obtained, he refuses to take the situation seriously. He does not let Katie call the demonologist, and over the next two weeks goes out of his way to do everything the psychic warned him against. He films more things moving by themselves at night, he gets a ouija board (which bursts into flames when no one’s home), he hurls schoolyard taunts down the stairs at their invisible antagonist. Eventually, Katie gets up in the middle of the night, stands beside the bed for hours, and then wanders downstairs to sit outside. When informed the next day, she has no memory of the incident.

Mee-Kah has to try one last thing before they call the demonologist. He puts talcum powder across the entrance to their bedroom. Loud noises wake them up that night. They follow the hoof-shaped prints to the attic, where they find a fire-damaged photo of Katie as a little girl. Katie freaks out. She tries to call the demonologist the next morning, but he’s out of the country for a few days. She calls back the psychic. He takes one step into the house, declares that the demonic presence is overpowering, and retreats again. Apparently they got the demon all worked up, and his presence is only antagonizing it further.

That night, an invisible force seizes Katie’s leg and drags her down the hall. Mee-Kah rescues her, and they decide to head to a hotel the next day. Mee-Kah goes out to arrange this (apparently you can’t just call). When he comes back he finds Katie semi-comatose on the floor, gripping a cross tight enough to bloody her hand. Mee-Kah burns it for some reason, and isn’t suspicious at all when Katie refuses to leave in an odd, dreamy voice. That night, she gets up to stand beside the bed for hours, then stomps down the stairs. She screams. Mee-Kah jumps out of bed to run after her. He screams too. Heavy footsteps up the stairs, and then a possessed Katie hurls Mee-Kah’s corpse at the camera with her freakish demon strength. A title card tells us when the police found Mee-Kah’s body, and notes that Katie’s whereabouts are still unknown.

Thoughts:

Keep filming, Mee-Kah.  No, I'm sure she doesn't need a hug, or some other kind of emotional support right now.  Taking steps to protect her from the demon is, of course, right out.Surprise of surprises, Paranormal Activity isn’t as bad as I expected. Granted, that’s not a very high bar to clear, but before I start nitpicking (something I would most likely do even for Citizen Kane) I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the well-structured story, the often realistic characterizations, and the slow but consistent pacing. In fact, I think I’ll go on record and say that this is quite possibly the very best one-location, three-character, no-budget movie about a pair of morons and their invisible demon stalker the director could possibly have made.

Okay, I admit it. I’ve started nitpicking already.

Here’s a gripe. Why do a pair of kids at least a decade younger than I am have a house nicer than mine? It would be different if they had good jobs (two incomes and no kids make up for a lot) but neither of these people are employed. Katie says she’s a student—a good investment for the future but not something that pays bills right now—and Mee-Kah is a day trader—i.e., someone who can’t tell the difference between the stock market and a slot machine. They don’t just make less money than I do, they make negative money. Both their occupations burn through cash like it was made of match heads.

That’s a minor quibble, I know, especially when you considerer the vast number of films featuring single-parent artistes who move their families into nineteen-room mansions. Here’s a better gripe. I call it, “Put down the camera and run, you slobbering, imbecilic sociopath.”

Putting one of the characters behind the camera works pretty well as a device to get the audience emotionally invested. At least, it does early in the film. But then the killin’ starts and it becomes apparent that the character filming would, for some reason, rather die than stop. More egregiously, he/she would rather film the horrible deaths of his/her loved ones than assist. Emotional connection? Lost. Sympathy for the character? Nonexistent. Suspension of disbelief? Plummeting earthward. This is a problem with pretty much every “protagonist as cinematographer” flick floating around right now. Paranormal Activity deals with this, to an extent, by portraying Mee-Kah as a selfish, narcissistic a—hole. “Yes,” we say to ourselves partway in. “This is the kind of guy who would shoot footage of his significant other getting violated by demons, and then make her watch it with him afterwards.” The problem of making us care about what happens to such a character remains unaddressed.

Mike (or, as he pronounces it, “Meek”), Bill and Kevin do their best to fill the movie’s many, many empty spaces, and do pretty well. During the many endless sleeping scenes, we get comments like Kevin’s “This is boredom that physically presses down on one’s chest,” Mike’s, “This movie’s mostly about ceiling vents, isn’t it?” and Bill’s “All the cinematic splendor of a Nyquil commercial.” At one point they fill space by all screaming at once for no reason. The funniest bit has Kevin fill a very long pause in the action by mumbling incoherently for two or three minutes straight. I don’t think I’m describing it well enough, because I’m pretty sure I’ve made it sound deathly boring. This is not inaccurate, but the decent filmmaking (for a highly qualified value of “decent”) and the riffers’ expert timing still manage to combine into a pleasantly watchable rifftrax experience.