paranormal-activity-posterSo recently, I’ve been bitching about horror movies masquerading as other things and then up pops Paranormal Activity which more or less delivers exactly what a viewer expects. It doesn’t set out to make you laugh. It doesn’t set out to bend your mind as you try to compute the continuity and implications of multiple time jumps. It sets out to scare the bejesus out of everyone who watches it.

The frights borrow heavily from chapter one of Alfred Hitchcock’s Scary Movie Making For Dummies and follow the master’s advice that the man with the axe is far scarier if you don’t see him.

The format comes from Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, et al. And yes, that means shaky handicam shots, a half-assed explanation of discovered footage, a seemingly improvised script and a time stamp in the bottom right hand corner.

The result, despite the rather hackneyed set-up and devices, is a film that made me jump several times in the first half and would’ve continued to do so right to the end if it hadn’t been for a couple of major problems that I’ll get to in a minute.

Paranormal Activity, according to its own website, is the film that everyone is talking about and judging by some of the soundbite reviews, I could be forgiven for thinking it was going to scare me to death, or maybe turn some of my grey hair back to black. It tells the story of Micha and Katie who’ve just moved in together, into a strangely large house in suburban San Diego. Micha brings his guitar and PC, Katie brings her CDs, a sizable collection of pyjamas and the notion that she’s been tormented by an evil spirit since she was eight-years-old. For reasons never fully explained, Micha reacts to this latter discovery by investing in some home video equipment and becomes determined to capture evidence of the spooks and spectres who’ve been scaring his girlfriend. For equal reasons, Katie lets him.

Actually, this all works rather well. The two leads, like the other five characters featured in the 99 minutes, are unknowns, but they convincingly bounce off each other, have a good chemistry and authentic relationship and manage to give rather understated performances which makes the opening premise a fairly easy sell. Katie talks about this possession like it was an old teddy bear that’s just been with her forever and has really become part of her. I warmed to her and her story and wanted to believe, which is half the battle.

So. What’s the problem with the other half of the battle? Well, part of the problem is that the scares become so clearly signposted that some of the suspense just evaporates. When, for the fifth time, Micha sets up the camera in the bedroom and they go to bed, we know that something is going to happen and something always does. At the start, this amounts to nothing more than distant footsteps, whispers, shadows and a moving door. This builds as the movie progresses, and that door becomes something of a focal point, but because it’s all framed in exactly the same way, some truly shocking and terrifying moments are diluted. Katie standing motionless over Micha as he sleeps while the clock in the bottom right hand corner fast forwards through the early hours of the morning is a very effective and eerie tool the first time we see it, less so the second time. Add to that, Micha’s nonsensical discovery of internet footage of a similarly possessed woman’s exorcism and my right eyebrow is moving north.

Still, all that I could just about overlook if it wasn’t for The Main Problem. As the scares increase and lives are in danger, the reaction from the two protagonists becomes utterly unbelievable and the continued filming of both the spooky events and the daytime tension and arguments is simply baffling. By the time we get to the denouement, the main question isn’t, “What’s going to happen?” It’s, “Why are they still there, still filming?” Of course, no filming equals no film, but first-time writer and director Oren Peli needs to come up with better reasons for these things to happen and these reactions to play out. The film put down some great work in the first hour and this decision to abandon logic and hope no one notices just strives to undo all that.

None of this should detract from the fact that in places this is a scary, atmospheric film and despite the repetative nature, the bedroom scenes, more often than not, delivered a sense of dread. The fact that everything is filmed within the house on a hand-held does give the sense that there is no escape either for the couple or the viewer. Did it make me check under the bed at night? No. But it did make me realise that if I ever secretly film a ouija board’s cursor moving on its own before board bursts into flames, the least I’m going to do is check the Yellow Pages and if Bill Murray’s number turns out to be unlisted, maybe I’ll settle for an estate agent.

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