Monday, April 04, 2011

The faux ghost documentary

How can you people sleep when there’s a goddamn demon right outside your bedroom door?

My ghost movie watching continues.

In 2009 I saw the ads and heard the hype about Paranormal Activity, a cinema-verité-styled movie. I'd heard, for instance, that it was made for $15,000 in one week of filming. The TV commercials were compelling: night vision views of people in theaters, shrieking in terror. The scariest movie ever made! Wow. That's a lot of hype to live up to.

I dared them to scare me. Paranormal Activity (hereinafter known as PA) is told through a video camera, set up to record whatever happens in the house inhabited by Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston).

The camera is everywhere, even in the bathroom with Katie. You can tell Micah has other plans for his videotaping…

As Katie explains it, weird things have been happening to her since she was eight years old, and now that's she's living with Micah, they have started happening again.

That's because, as a psychic explains to her, she doesn't live in a haunted house. The entity, which he detects is not human, is after her. He can't help them, because his job is connecting live people with their deceased loved ones, and this is a demon, not the ghost of a person. Micah tells the psychic he'll get a Ouija board and ask the demon what it wants. The psychic says don't do'll only invite it in. As if it isn't in the house already.

”Ah, c’mon, honey…what does a psychic know? What harm can it do?”

Being a man, Micah goes against the psychic’s advice and gets a Ouija board. Luckily, he had set up the video camera (which is usually in their bedroom, filming them as they sleep while all the screwy, scary things go on), and when Micah and Katie leave for the evening it records the Ouija board spontaneously bursting into flame.

Whoops! Flame on!

”I dunno…is the inverted star burned into the Ouija board, is that a bad sign?”

It was clever of the filmmakers to tell us the demon was after Katie, and that it's not a typical haunted house. She might as well stay where she is, because the demon will follow her. Like everyone else who watches a haunted house movie I wonder why the hell the people stay in the house. Leave the house, leave the haunting. But, no one would have a story if they did that, so despite all logic in haunted house movies the characters stay in the haunted house to be terrorized by whatever is haunting it.

PA spends a lot of time with the video recorder showing the couple sleeping, a clock in the lower corner telling us what time the invisible demon enters. (That's another bit of genius, never show the demon, but make his presence known by sound. The invisible is much scarier than the visible, which is where many horror movies fail.) The thought struck me: how do these people sleep knowing the demon may come in the door at any second? Why doesn't Micah, who works at home, stay awake at night, and sleep during the day? Although he is a day trader, he could catch a view winks. Personally, knowing that some horrible, invisible thing who wants to do me harm can just come in anytime it wants to would keep me from going to sleep.

The other thing that struck me is that there is a noise when the demon comes in. Closed captioning describes it as a "low hum," but it sounds more like a train going through the house. I have theater sound and the noise rattled the glassware in my living room, so I don't know how anyone could sleep through that. There are other noises too: crashing glassware, doors slamming, wake the couple. Thank god, because I thought they must be hearing impaired if they can't hear that hum.

Despite being somewhat skeptical while watching the movie, later on that evening as I prepared for bed it was on my mind. Ulp. I thought, what if I turn out the light to go to bed and hear a crash, a slamming door somewhere in the house? I'm someone who's used to my wife being gone--she was in Portland, visiting friends--and horror movies don't scare me. But there was something about Micah and Katie's otherwise normal lives, she a student, he a day trader, living in an unostentatious house, that struck me as being similar to my own. I read a book to get my mind off it and went to sleep about 11:30. At 5:00 in the morning I was jolted out of bed by a loud crash.

I didn't come up screaming about demons, but looked out my living room window to see that several inches of snow had fallen during the night. It was that heavy, wet stuff that comes off the lake west of us, and it had broken off a large branch. A couple of hours later when I got up I went out and dragged the branch to the middle of my lawn, and today if the snow melts I'll cut it up and leave it out for the city to pick up.

Paranormal Activity stayed on my mind. It is not the scariest movie ever made, but it is scary, if you look past some of the logical lapses displayed by the characters. I appreciated that there were no long-winded, boring explanations for the demon invading their space. The characters don't know--until they make an educated guess based on information from a similar case on the Internet--why the demon has picked Katie. That's good. Make us in the audience work at why it is happening, and come to our own conclusions. The DVD includes an alternate ending. I was disappointed in both endings, although the one that played in theaters is the better of the two. I admire the filmmaking skills, and even though the movie-on-tape concept is getting a bit old (and some people hate it because the moving camera gives them motion sickness), the video camera recording what was going on seemed like something in character. It seemed much more logical than the awkward use of the video camera in Cloverfield, for instance. PA is a movie I'd recommend, with qualifications. If you believe in demons and malevolent spirits I'd say don't watch it. It'll only upset you. If you don't believe in demons and evil spirits, or are a film student and like to see a really well made independent, low, low budget film, make sure you see this movie.

Part of the attempt to make this fictional account appear real. Are those really the actors’ names? It says they are in the Internet Movie Database. Are the actors playing other people under their own names? It might be embarrassing to be recognized in a grocery store: “Say, aren’t you that gal who got possessed by that demon? It said at the end you were never seen again, and yet here you are!”

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