Monday, 30 November 2009

Paranormal Activity

The tagline of Martin Scorsese's 1991 Cape Fear remake read, 'There's nothing in the dark that isn't there in the light...Except fear'. Oren Peli's terrific new chiller Paranormal Activity is the very antithesis of that logic: there is something in the dark, it is monstrous and it will get you. The film's expert playing on these primal fears generates a terrifying power.

Completed in 2007 but since flailing in distribution limbo, the movie generated strong buzz from test audiences and royalty like Steven Spielberg (who 'suggested' the horrific climax). A subsequent breakout in every sense of the word ($100 million? Been there, done that), it draws on the savvy net-based marketing and grainy cam aesthetic of sleeper hits like The Blair Witch Project while moving the terror into that most secure of environs: one's own home...

Like Blair Witch, it purports to be a true story, a mockudrama, even down to the names of the lead actors matching that of their characters. But this is largely unneccesary - the film is frightening enough on its own and the 'reality' framing device is soon forgotten. Micah (Micah Sloat) is a cocksure young guy who's purchased a new video camera for the express purpose of recording odd bumps and bangs in his new San Diego home.

More weirdly, the activity of the title seems to centre around his girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston) who, ominously, claims 'something' has stalked her since the age of eight, possibly burning down her old family home in the process. What they record comes to fray their relationship and eventually their sanity, especially when, on repeated nights, even the bedroom is invaded by their unwelcome guest. News from a local psychic isn't promising when even he claims to be out of his depth.

Truly this is a film where to know less is better. Reminiscent of classics like the original The Haunting, all darkened corridors and movement at the edge of the frame, Activity operates on a gut level of terror unmatched in modern horror cinema. Playing on the nerves of the audience like an expert guitarist, the horror Peli exposes in an everyday home cum hotbed of supernatural energy is palpable.

The unknown...The dark...The mind...Activity exploits all three to brilliant effect, as well as tropes of the genre like trips to the attic and smashed picture frames. The immediacy of the DV perspective is, unsurprisingly, what tickles the small of one's back. By forcing our faces into a plausible-looking illusion, the hysteria is built to agonizing proportions. Sloat and Featherston sell their characters' neuroses effectively but the acting is somewhat functional, a mere outlet for the audience as Peli expertly builds another set-piece having dissipated tension just moments earlier.

And when the viewer is forced into the bedroom scenes, there is nowhere to hide, other than behind one's hands. What's felt is something quite exquisite: raw, unadulterated fear.

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