music friday: san francisco
history, not nostalgia

by request: paranormal activity (oren peli, 2007)

This comes from Doug, who is prepping for the release of Paranormal Activity 4 by re-watching the earlier films in the series.

It’s hard to be too critical towards a movie made for $15,000 that grossed almost $200 million worldwide. And Oren Peli does more than just get a movie done on the cheap. There’s artfulness here, and his “found footage” approach is believable, as an approach. However, this doesn’t mean Peli manages to overcome some of the typical problems with the standard genre narrative he is presenting. One can appreciate his skills, and still wish Paranormal Activity was a better movie.

There’s the “don’t go in the basement” problem. Presented with a possible demon invasion, the two protagonists never try leaving the house (they accept the advice of a ghost hunter, who tells them leaving won’t help, even though he asserts on several occasions that demons are not his “specialty”, i.e. he’s talking out of his ass). It’s actually rather clever on Peli’s part: he used his own home as the only set in the movie, which saved a lot of money, then wrote a lame “explanation” from the ghost hunter so we wouldn’t question the assumption that the characters shouldn’t go somewhere else. And there’s a certain pleasure in seeing the typical horror-film routine playing out … part of the fun is yelling at the screen for the heroine to stop doing what she’s doing, just before she does it anyway. But I found it mildly irritating in this case.

As with many quirky films, Peli is congratulated as much for what he doesn’t do as for what he does. He doesn’t pile on the cheap thrills, the gore is minimal, the sexuality implied (no gratuitous naked babes), the pace unhurried. Peli deserves credit for trying something different. But the slow buildup, combined with the annoying behavior of the two main characters (granted, the guy is supposed to be annoying), means that the first half drags considerably. It’s one thing to refuse the cheap thrill, but to play everything so low-key made it hard for me to stay awake.

Peli can also be applauded for the high level of his influences. But once you make the connection between this film and, say, Rosemary’s Baby, you realize that Oren Peli is no Roman Polanski. Compare Paranormal Activity to Polanski’s first feature, Knife in the Water, also a low-budget thriller with a minimal cast, to get a feel for the difference between someone making the most of what little resources they have, and someone making a very good movie with little resources.

All of this may seem like damning with faint praise, and I don’t really want to come across that way. Paranormal Activity is indeed quite an accomplishment. It’s just not a great movie. 6/10.