28 September 2009 | RichardSRussell-1
Best Bargain in the Basement
Paranormal Activity (R, 1:29) — Fantasy: Supernatural, bargain basement, original
"Significance" is one of several dimensions I use to categorize SF&F films. It refers to the amount of resources — writing, acting, sets, costumes, effects, promotion, etc. — thrown into any particular movie, and I drop things into 4 pigeonholes: biggie, 2nd string, 3rd string, and bargain basement.
Earlier this week I put The Age of Stupid into the last of these (movies that could have been made in somebody's basement), but Paranormal Activity is even basementier. In fact, compared to its siblings, The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, it may be the basementiest feature film ever released. You could make 10 of these for what Transformers probably blew on latex alone.
But that brings us to the "bargain" part. Dollar for dollar, you get about a zillion times more entertainment out of Paranormal Activity than you do out of even good blockbusters like Iron Man, let alone such overblown, overfrenetic, overloud crap as Transformers.
The movie is set entirely in a single house and features only 2 actors, both nonentities, aside from fleeting appearances by a couple of equally unknown supporting actors. It's all filmed with a consumer video camera, and much of the film is devoted to what that camera, mounted on a tripod in the young couple's bedroom, captures on its ultra-low-light setting as they sleep each night away for 2 weeks in late 2006.
As we learn in the opening sequence, it's a pretty expensive camera, and Katie Featherston (playing a character of the same name) is fretting over the cost, but her boyfriend, Micah Sloat (ditto), assures her that he makes that much money in a single morning. It develops that she's an English-lit student and he's a day trader.
Of more interest is why they acquired this geeky gizmo. Katie's been haunted by strange apparitions at least since she was 8 years old, and at the beginning Micah is humoring her by indulging his penchant for guy toys with a view toward capturing some of her more recent paranormal visitations on audio and video. He's pretty skeptical, but soon enuf weird poltergeistic effects start showing up on tape, just tiny little things, but inexplicable, and gradually he dials down the scoffing and (honest, well earned) chuckles and starts thinking this is "cool" (and, we are left to infer, possibly profitable). Katie, meanwhile, gets increasingly jittery and frightened. Neither is sleeping well, and they start snapping at each other, followed by regrets and reassurances.
The dialog and performances are absolutely, totally, 100% realistic. Katie and Micah behave and talk exactly as you would expect of any happy young couple. Nothing is forced or artificial. The film completely avoids all horror-movie clichés. No cats jump at you out of the dark. Every time they flip a switch, the lights reliably come on. There are none of those cheap tricks where you see a character all alone in a wide-angle shot, then cut to a close-up as a hand appears out of nowhere from behind. In fact, almost all the shots are long, fixed- camera, wide-angle perspectives, and you can see exactly what's going on at all times (including the time stamp in the lower right corner).
All of which make this the kind of movie that I'm always hoping for — an original story, well told, effective, using believable characters and, at least in this case, not needing a huge budget to get the job done.
Since I saw it the same day as Pandorum (3), with its seizure-inducing stroboscopic credits, I must also say a good word about the closing credits for Paranormal Activity: 3 minutes of total black screen. True to the producers' conceit, they maintain the illusion of documentarihood to the very end.