"One of the scariest movies of all time". Fwoar, so hyper your bole ar? This film has been riding on a pretty damn effective marketing campaign, and while scary is subjective, it looks like it's definitely become one of the most profitable movies of all time ('cos it was only made for US$15,000). The hype has reached Malaysia long before it's current cinema release; I know of quite a few people who found, um, ways to watch it months ago, and they only sought it out because they heard the hype. Which brings us to the USD$141 million (its total worldwide gross so far) question - is Paranormal Activity scary?
Here's a hint: the same night I watched it, I had a very hard time sleeping.
Micah (Micah Sloat), a day trader, and Katie (Katie Featherston), a graduate student, are a live-in couple in San Diego. Katie has been plagued by supernatural disturbances since childhood, and one day Micah buys an expensive video camera with the intention of capturing these occurrences on film. They are also paid a visit by a psychic, Dr. Fredrichs (Mark Fredrichs), who tells them that Katie is haunted by a demon - a being of pure malevolence that will follow her wherever she goes. As the disturbances grow in intensity and violence, Katie becomes more and more terrified - and Micah more and more determined to film them.
I actually like horror. No, really. I'm fascinated by that paradoxical human desire to experience fear, of all emotions. I reckon that of all the emotions that films and stories aim to evoke in their audience - laughter, joy, sadness, etc. - fear is the most difficult, and I admire films that do it successfully. My problem with horror movies is that most of them don't evoke fear, they merely evoke shock - hence, all those annoying "jump" scares. Or they evoke revulsion, with blood and gore and bodily dismemberment. Most "scary" scenes in horror movies - e.g. screaming female chased by sharp-instrument-wielding maniac - are often more akin to action sequences. Which, okay, I suppose you could argue that the emotion being evoked there is terror, which is part and parcel of horror. But fear - that unease, that feeling of dread, that sense that something's just wrong, that you're just not safe no matter what you do - it's a rare film that can do that.
Paranormal Activity does it. It does it so simply that it makes you wonder why so many horror movies go the complete opposite direction, blowing out on SFX and loud music and gallons of karo syrup. The film alternates between several daytime and nighttime scenes; it is during the latter, when Micah's camera films their bedroom as they sleep, that Katie's demon makes its appearances. And that simple setup - two people asleep in bed at night, whilst an invisible entity menaces them - is enough to be pants-wettingly terrifying. It's like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho - the infamous shower scene isn't scary because of the violence. It's scary because it's in the shower. In there, you're naked. You're vulnerable, literally and psychologically. Likewise the nighttime scenes in Paranormal Activity; the bedroom is the room in which you sleep. And when you're asleep, you're completely, utterly defenceless.
It helps that the film is presented as a record of Micah's footage, with the verisimillitude that the home-video feel of it lends. The two principal actors also make their characters believable, with Katie Featherston getting most of the screen time as well as the tougher role; she handles her character's mounting terror and desperation quite effectively. And it also helps that the script provides some depth for their relationship. Micah is, to put it gently, a jerk. His excitement over capturing the demon on film supercedes his concern for Katie, and more than once asks her if there's a way to provoke the attacks. Later, he balks at calling for help because of his ego - it's his girlfriend and his house that's being threatened, so he insists on dealing with it himself. But Katie is by no means meek and submissive to him either; there's a give-and-take to their relationship that's nicely realistic.
(Incidentally, it's interesting that the actors play characters named after themselves, just like in The Blair Witch Project - a clear spiritual predecessor to this film. Director Oren Peli likely intended to promote this as a "true story" a la Blair Witch at first, then decided against it. Wisely, I think. Their current marketing angle is much better.)
I quite seriously considered giving this movie three-and-a-half stars, because it is just that damn scary; I'm recommending it to lots of people already, and telling them not to watch it on a night when they need to wake up early the next morning. (Seriously, you shouldn't.) But in the end I settled on three stars, because its most notable weakness is that the plot is really quite thin. It doesn't build up to a logical conclusion; the demonic attacks just grow more and more violent until the terrifying climax. Also, the characterization of Katie and Micah doesn't really develop any further, which is kinda disappointing. But I didn't notice any of this until after the movie, and I doubt most people will at all - you'll be too busy cringing in fear throughout. The audience at my screening certainly were. There was a discernible - and audible - tremor every time a nighttime scene began, and I could definitely sympathize.
I quite like these "found footage" films - I liked Blair Witch and Cloverfield, although I watched both on home video. This one is the first I've seen on the big screen, and unfortunately I sat a little too close in front and got a bit of a headache; I definitely recommend getting seats as far back as possible. But despite my throbbing head, this film still spooked the bejeezus out of me. To those who've already seen it on DVD and didn't find it scary: first of all, aiseh, you've spoiled it for yourselves laa. It works way better in a cinema with a couple hundred other scared-shitless viewers. And second of all, this is a very different kind of horror movie - it's much quieter, more subtle, and works on the rule that what you can't see is much, much scarier than what you can. Which is something that slasher flicks and torture porn and other modern horror films just don't understand. If you prefer their brand of horror - well, I gotta say, you're missing out on one of the scariest movies of all time. Which, yeah. It is.
Note: I have a theory regarding Katie's demon's attacks that I've not heard anywhere else. I tried not to spoil too much, but nevertheless I'm putting it in the comments just in case. Do tell me what you think.
Update: Rating revised to reflect my new five-star rating scale.
NEXT REVIEW: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
Expectations: dunno what to expect. Haven't seen a Terry Gilliam film in years