Things I learned while watching writer-director Oren Peli’s ingenious, spooky, much-hyped and ultimately disappointing Paranormal Activity:
• Before you move in with your significant other, make sure you know a bit about their lives before you met them. More specifically, ask them if they happened to be haunted by a “shadowy figure” that would materialize at the foot of their bed when they were kids, burned down their childhood home and then followed their family around, continuing to terrorize them as they moved from city to city. It’s helpful to know this sort of stuff about people you intend to live with and eventually marry.
• Even in the post-Hostel/Saw era, it is still possible to terrify audiences almost entirely by suggestion. I’ve never been more freaked out by the sight of a door swaying back and forth a couple of inches.
• The Israeli-born Peli, a former video game designer with no formal film training, made Paranormal Activity for less than $15,000, and is now working on his second film (Area 51) with a budget of $5 million. He is living proof that sometimes, if you have a good idea and execute it well enough, your dreams of becoming a director really can come true. It helps, though, if Steven Spielberg happens to watch a DVD screener of your film and gives it his stamp of approval.
• The first-person “found footage” filmmaking style that worked such evil wonders in the no-budget The Blair Witch Project, and translated so effectively to huge-budget proportions in Cloverfield, still has plenty of life left in it. The key element to making it work is finding unknown actors who can convincingly portray ordinary people constantly videotaping themselves, such as Paranormal Activity‘s Katie Featherstone and Micah Sloat, who play the charismatic couple documenting the increasingly strange goings-on inside their home.
• Humor remains an indispensable tool in getting a horror film audience to relax before the scary stuff starts to go down. It also helps humanize your characters. When a paranormal expert informs the couple hauntings feed off negative energy, the still-skeptical Micah tells Katie “We shouldn’t let your mother come over any more.”
• When you’re fairly convinced there’s a ghost or demon or other evil creature haunting your home, and the ghostbusting psychic you call in to investigate is so freaked out he hightails it out of there a few seconds after stepping through your door (“Whoa! I can’t be here!”), it may be time to move. Or at least call in Max Von Sydow.
• Cinematic suspense is a tricky thing. It is highly elastic and can be stretched to delirious extremes, like in Inglourious Basterds or every other Brian De Palma picture. But stretch out the suspense too long, and tedium starts to creep in. Once the viewer grows bored, it’s almost impossible to draw them back in, and the seams in your movie start to show.
• When an expert in demonology tells you never to use a Ouija board to talk with a demon, because that’s an invitation for them to cross over into your home, heed their advice. Better yet, never use a Ouija board at all, just to be safe. You remember how evil and dangerous they seemed when you were a kid? It’s all true.
• I understand marketing is critical to getting your movie seen, and the campaign Paramount Pictures has created for Paranormal Activity is ingenious. But did they have to spoil almost all of the spookiest moments from the film in the trailer?
• As eerie as much of Paranormal Activity is, nothing in it comes close to the final shot of The Blair Witch Project, which remains one of the most hair-raising moments I’ve had in a movie theater in the last 10 years. And that was basically a shot of a guy staring at a wall.
• Paranormal Activity runs a brief 87 minutes, but it would have been infinitely more effective if it had been 5 or 10 minutes shorter. You know when characters in a movie start bickering and arguing for no discernible reason, even when they’re in the middle of a situation so dire and scary they should only be thinking about survival? That’s called padding.
• You know what’s scarier than the lights in your home turning on and off by themselves in the middle of the night, or sudden loud noises that wake you up with a startle? Finding footprints left by some kind of three-toed creature next to your bed in the morning.
• When you stoke an audience’s expectation about what lurks in the shadows of a dark hallway or a cramped attic, and you spend the entire film relying on the viewer’s imagination about who or what the presence may be, think very carefully about actually revealing it. The last shot in Paranormal Activity is so hackneyed and trite and expected, it nearly ruins everything that came before. The stuff that happens right before it, however, is pretty good.
• If you’re going to see Paranormal Activity, you must absolutely see it in a crowded theater, preferably this weekend, while the hype is at its peak and audiences are primed to be scared. The movie’s faults aside, this is the kind of show where half the fun is watching it in the company of a large group of people. Paranormal Activity is a one-shot viewing experience — like Blair Witch, there’s nothing in the movie to compel you to ever watch it again — but as far as communal experiences at the multiplex go, the film delivers.
Cast: Katie Featherstone, Micah Sloat, Michael Bayouth, Amber Armstrong.
Writer-director: Oren Peli.
Producers: Jason Blum, Oren Peli.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 87 minutes. Vulgar language.