The Problem with Paranormal Activity

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR PARANORMAL ACTIVITY FOLLOW

Welcomed as a returning hero this year by the horror genre, Paranormal Activity heralded the commercial arrival, or re-arrival, of the ‘found footage’ genre (we’ve already got James Marsh entering the fray). The Blair Witch Project, a film still entirely underrated, popularised the sub-genre in the late-90s, though without it ever fully becoming a horror movement in the way that so-called ‘torture porn’ has managed.

The success of Paranormal Activity (slightly over $100m off a $15,000 budget), has been spectacular for its backers, and provides a similar chance for studios to that presented by torture porn. You have small budgets (always a development winner), no stars (again less money and less ego) and the opportunity to market a film with a degree of faux-authenticity.

From the view of horror fans, you also get a host of new filmmakers having a stab at the genre, many of whom will be forced into actually considering methods for scaring an audience beyond slicing the face of attractive young things. It can be nothing but a good thing to push filmmakers into having to show initiative and adopt classic styles rather than diving behind shields of gore and nudity.

Paranormal Activity’s first half is all the best things about this model of filmmaking. Director Oren Peli (who has already deserted low budgets to attempt a Roswell-y alien movie) crafts a creepy atmosphere, primarily through focusing the jumps and scares on the primal fear held by many of being in a new place (the leads have just moved into a new house). They hear creaks and odd sounds, allowing their minds to wander to believing this to be apparitional or demonic in nature.

Whilst they are only positing the possibility of spirits and paranormal goings-on, the film is very interesting and effective. The moment this film makes clear that this is absolutely a demonic entity, the train derails.

Peli, after so expertly tapping into those aforementioned fears during the first half, succumbs to temptation and, in the process, rips the imagination of the viewer out of the equation. Once that happens, Peli is forced to attempt different ways to scare the audience. Unfortunately, the ‘reveal’ of the demon in the house just pushes the film well out of reality and, subsequently, makes it more an exercise for young filmmakers to think about how certain shots and tricks were achieved on such a small budget.

Great horror films should tap into the primal fears of the audience. Or they should be expertly made by a director able to manipulate the audience into fearing the supernatural monsters put in front of them. You can’t really have it both ways and Paranormal Activity, for all the promise shown, loses inspiration in the second half and drops its ambiguity in favour of embracing standardised horror tropes.

Look out for this week’s podcast when Tom, John and Sam will all discuss Paranormal Activity in depth

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