Finally, someone makes a modern horror film that is truly scary. Amidst all the attempts to scare us with masked psychos, gothic children and ridiculous aliens someone finally strikes upon what scares people the most. It’s not monsters or murders, it’s brilliantly simple: We fear what we do not know. It’s not the killer with the knife that scares us but the fact we don’t know where or who he is. Paranormal Activity relentlessly preys on this fear of the unknown and is as likely to scare teenage girls as it is to frighten full-grown men.
I’m tempted to forgo plot description entirely because it’s best to go into the film as blind as possible. I’d encourage you at this point to skip over this paragraph unless you must absolutely know what the setup is beforehand. Katie (Katie Featherston) is convinced that she is being haunted by some supernatural force. Her boyfriend, Micah (Micah Sloat), is less certain He figures the best course of action is to document the events via camcorder and alleviate her fears. And if there really is something, all the better as he’s got some great Youtube material.
The film is brilliantly paced as a truly suspenseful piece. Most of the film is shot from the same location and yet every time there’s this sense of tension as we see the recovered footage. Is something going to happen? When? And while there are a few jump scare, most of the time we hear something before events happen. But where it is really brilliant is in the comedic daytime pieces it interjects between the scares. It makes us laugh at what we just saw and mock the ridiculousness of the circumstances, lulling us into complacency only to sucker-punch us with another evening of suspense and fright.
The humor springs forth from the macho male character. He’s cocky, confident and constantly wise-cracking about the whole affair. In a way he can be seen as the cynical audience member who doesn’t buy into any of the ridiculousness. Instead, he’s more interested in getting some saucy footage of his girlfriend on camera. His character has this compelling idea of being a representation of the kid of complacent modern horror viewer but it’s hard to get past the fact that his character comes off as a jerk.
In certain ways the entire film feels like a subtle commentary on the nature of horror films. By having this male character come in and film all these events and basically mocking them as he’s experiencing them he becomes an audience member, watching this all unfold and enjoying it. More often than not he’s more interested in capturing compelling footage than comforting his girlfriend. In a way this is how all horror audiences work, we’d rather enjoy the pain and torment of people in duress than see them rescued. Horror movies with rainbows and buckets of gold at the end are for the weak.
And the audience sure was enjoying themselves at the showing I went to. Girls were screaming, a few even crying , in fear and I’m fairly certain I heard a few stifled male voices as well. People laughed in relief when the frightening suspense was simply a false alarm or when the macho male cracked a good paranormal joke. People were violently scared of watching essentially nothing happen for the longest time. Some of the smallest things set off the audience in screams. And it was almost all fear out of what we couldn’t see, not what we could.
Yet for all its brilliant execution the film does suffer from a number of little things. For one, the film sets up this entire house in the first act only to restrict itself to about half the rooms for the rest of the film. You’ve got all this space where you could set up even more fear of the unknown and instead the film’s scares are almost exclusively restricted to the same couple of rooms. Also, there’s far too much breaking of the fourth wall. Some of it is cute and funny but after a while it’s annoying, especially at the end of the film, which brings me to my final complaint.
Part of the hazards of being a film critic is that you critically examine almost every aspect of a film, which means you notice things, like say the fact the ending of the film is not a surprise to any attentive viewer. Within the first 20 minutes I figured where this was all headed and it never deviated. There were dead end rabbit trails that tried to trick me, but I never bought them. The film dropped far too many clues foreshadowing the last scene. For all its suspenseful scares the film never surprised me, which took away from a lot of the suspense.
That being said, I have a confession to make. Due to this film I spent a sleepless Saturday night cuddled in my computer chair watching episodes of bright, cheery shows on Hulu to clear my mind. It didn’t work. At dawn I stumbled into bed and drifted away, the first rays of sun glimmering through my window. The film is just that effective at assaulting the psychological fears of the human mind. And instead of being angry that I spent money to keep myself awake all night I’m actually elated that I’ve experienced such a powerful and effective film. It’s the only film that’s ever kept me up all night and I don’t think I need to say any more than that. (But once again I did anyway.)
© 2009 James Blake Ewing