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Paranormal Activity

Reviewed By Abhishek Bandekar
Posted 03/27/10 01:31:09

"As Paranormal as Paranormal can be!"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The capacity to scare an audience is perhaps the basest, and yet the most supreme, of cinema’s slow and sure march towards destroying the proverbial fourth wall. After all, to be able to make people collectively clutch at their arm-rests in a mass-induced state of fear and frenzy is the zenith of any filmmaking stimulus- beyond the pangs of emotion brought about by gut-wrenching dramas and comedy-induced cathartic laughter. In that sense, horror films are to mainstream movies what pornography is to the visual medium- aiming directly for arousal. Pornography is unfortunately an easily abused word; but to the 21st century it is a culturally defining term. Just as we wonder what can titillate us in an age where we see exposed bodies all around us, what can really scare us when cinema has captured everything from decapitations and mutilations in the name of thrills and horror? Still, Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity manages to scare the bejesus out of you…and that too minus any gore!

The story of Paranormal Activity is an extremely simple one. Young couple Micah (Sloat) and Katie (Featherston) move into a suburban San Diego house. She begins to hear strange sounds at nights; and he comes up with an idea to keep a camera running in their bedroom, hoping to record paranormal footage, if any. That is about it for story then. But the proof of this cinematic pudding is in Peli’s cinema-vérité approach in the telling. Like 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, which this film is undoubtedly inspired by, Peli presents the happenings in the house as recovered personal video footage. In the times of YouTube and MMS, Peli’s video-footage ploy lends the film immediacy and also acts as a reminder of just how much technology has intruded our daily lives. Micah’s over-exuberance in capturing the paranormal activity threatens to damage his relationship with Katie. After one scary incident, Katie can’t believe that Micah actually went back to fetch his camera!

When the lights go out and the couple resigns to bed, we see via Micah’s recorder on the tripod the events that transpire as they sleep. This is very unsettling because the almost voyeuristic nature of this ‘watching’ at once privileges and incriminates your position as an audience. It privileges because what you are seeing is recorded footage that has already happened, so the threat is distant; but it incriminates because you actually look forward to the nights and wait and watch as the couple sleeps, hoping for something really ‘evil’ to take place.

Peli’s biggest triumph then is in trusting the primal phobias and fears of his audience. There are no moviemaking trappings here. There is no background score to ratchet up the tension…no clever cinematography orchestrated to a ‘boo’ end. There are no fast cuts… no scary ghosts to make you jump out of your seats, darn it! There is instead a dreadfully escalating anticipation and a tapping into everyday templates like an empty hallway, stairs and the attic. By the end of the film you’ve grown familiar to the bedroom, and like a conditioned Pavlovian subject stuck in the couple’s daily routine of going to bed you scrutinize every shadow and every creak of a door.

Like the pioneering master of thrills Alfred Hitchcock, Peli plays more with suspense than shock. Which is why when the shock does arrive eventually, it is sure to scare you in a way you’ve never been scared before at the movies.

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