Fans and detractors of Paranormal Activity can at least agree on one point: this micro-budget, pseudo-realistic, amateur-hour horror film is a miracle of viral marketing. Set entirely in one house and featuring only four non-professional actors, the production cost a reported $15,000—about as much as most Hollywood efforts set aside for a day’s sushi. But after a low-key initial release, word spread across the internet—fuelled by chat-room gossip, “leaked” snippets and rumours of its supposed authenticity—and Paranormal Activity was let loose in 200 cinemas across the United States. It took $9.1 million in its first week and became the most profitable film in history.
As the phenomenon now reaches Europe, this is the question that will haunt cinemagoers far more efficiently than the content of the film: have I been conned? Certainly there’s not much to the movie even to flesh out a review. A young woman named Katie (Katie Featherston) complains to her boyfriend that she is experiencing strange but intangible visitations during the night. Micah (Micah Stoat) is sceptical but believes enough to buy a video camera and wires it up at the foot of the bed. The amateur auteur also gets carried away sufficiently to record every other moment of their tedious lives, and what constitutes the finished film purports to be the couple’s unedited tapes, discovered by the police. That means time-stamped, wonkily-shot home video and inconsequential, improvised dialogue. Bring motion-sickness pills. And caffeine.
The premise at least makes us aware that something happens to the couple, but after about half an hour, the only real threat seems to be that Katie will bludgeon Micah for continuing to shove the camera down her throat, or that he will be bored to death by her insipid conversation. In these early stages, the “visitor” scarcely pulls its weight: a couple of slammed doors and a gentle breeze through the bedroom are no more chilling than a night in a cheap hotel.
The determining factor will likely be your own susceptibility to hype and suggestion. A willing and anticipatory mind could allow the increasing influence of the unseen, unsaid and unexplained to infect it, more profoundly even than the gallons of blood sluicing traditional horror. But the price for cool detachment will be disappointment: apart from a hurried ending, the pace is consistently pedestrian. The spooks are less in your face than in your head.
The principal problem for Paranormal Activity is that it has been released ten years too late. The Blair Witch Project harnessed the novelty of these “thought horrors” in 1999 and the much under-rated Cloverfield exploited the goons-with-video-camera shtick more successfully. Genius or garbage, the best policy is to judge for yourself, but don’t say you haven’t been warned, whatever your expectations.
If you’re looking for intentional laughs, and a good deal more blood for your buck, get along to Zombieland, also now showing in Bratislava. Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin are four of the last remaining sentient humans in America after a virus has turned the rest of the country into flesh-eating beasts. The film is a chronicle of their gruesome and hilarious (often gruesomely hilarious) battles with the monsters, in which guns, car doors, gardening shears and falling pianos are all employed as if in a cartoon to decapitate, crush and slay.
The virus originated in a hamburger, and many of the zombies are too fat to succeed in their pursuit of the toned heroes, just one of the ways in which this clever film satirises American mores as it sends up the zombie-flick genre. Everyone plays to type: the two women begin as conniving vigilantes but eventually need rescuing, while the nebbish Eisenberg jots down a list of rules for zombie combat, which end up informing the narrative framework.
Harrelson, meanwhile, is brilliant, brazen and gung-ho (“He’s in the ass-kicking business,” says Eisenberg. “And business is gooooood!” drawls Harrelson) but he doesn’t steal the show. That’s because of an inspired cameo when the action reaches Beverley Hills—it’s better you don’t know who it is, but it’s up there with the best of the year.
21. Dec 2009 at 0:00 | Howard Swains