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movies / October 25, 2009
By Eileen Jones


I finally got around to seeing Paranormal Activity, the low-budget ghost movie that’s making so much money. It’s spinning through the predictable cycle already charted by The Blair Witch Project ten years ago:

1) early fan buzz and glowing reviews, followed by

2) naysayers claiming the movie’s not scary, it’s stupid and boring, while critics begin to damn it with faint praise by saying the film’s “a triumph of clever marketing,” which leads to

3) a total raving backlash, with all agreed that fans of this piece of crap are idiots who don’t even know they’ve been had. And still to come,

4) a vague consensus that, in retrospect, Paranormal Activity was pretty good.

I’m not sure why we find it necessary to go through these convulsions over small, cheap horror films marketed as “found footage.” Personally, I like them. I wish people would go out and make lots more of them. Small cheap horror films are a proud American tradition. The “found footage” idea is great and, strangely enough, it’s relatively unexploited in our camera-crazed society. If more of us would get out there and shoot small cheap horror films purporting to be “found footage” instead of grousing about the few “found footage” horror films we already have, it would be a better and sweeter world.

Anyway, Paranormal Activity is good if you like ghosts. I like ghosts. I also like zombies and psychotic killers with chainsaws—I had a fairly traditional American education—but I’m not bored by low-resolution long shots of rooms in which nothing happens but a door opening six inches, apparently by itself. If you like ghosts, that’s practically the money shot.

Paranormal Activity has some big flaws, but I find big flaws fairly forgivable in $10,000 films made by amateurs. For example, the lead couple, Micah Sloat and Katie Featherstone (played by Micah Sloat and Katie Featherstone in a bit of non-clever reflexivity) are white twenty-somethings so conspicuously affluent you know they must pay, per the Horror Code, for their whiny privilege. That’s distractingly obvious.

I read one review referring to the couple as “middle-class” and nearly spit up my coffee. They live in a big fancy-ass house in San Diego—in SAN DIEGO, where houses haven’t sold at reasonable prices since the first Catholic missionaries infested California—with a tiled-in pool and a flat-screen TV of billboard size. What do these youngsters do to earn such a spectacular pad? She’s a grad student in English—hah!—and he’s a day-trader, i.e., a schmuck. In fact, he’s such a schmuck it constitutes the biggest flaw in the film, because you know from the outset that his schmuckiness is directly tied to what’s going to happen, horror-wise, and it’s a long wait before it happens.

The film takes place in and immediately around the house, and it represents the attempts of the aforesaid young couple to document with an expensive camcorder the creepy phenomena occurring there. They are solemnly warned by a psychic investigator (Mark Fredrichs) that any negativity between them will “feed” the possibly demonic presence in the house, so again, we know early on what we’re in for. The couple will turn on each other. The entity will gorge itself on the yummy delicious cornucopia of rich-people-neuroses, and grow strong, and destroy the young couple.

And what could be fairer than that?

Writer-director Oren Peli does his best work with the low-res black-and-white camcorder shots of the couple’s bedroom, with the time-code running in the corner of the frame. We keep returning to the same shot set-up (“Night #13”) and staring at the couple in the bed, waiting for something to happen. These shots are the ones that break the easily bored. But if you like the uncanny effects that are so essential to the film medium, you’ll really enjoy them. There’s an effect involving Katie standing in a trance-like state by the bed in the middle of the night, staring down at the schmuck Micah, that’s just fabulous. The film is speeded up to register that she’s there for hours, with the time-code racing ahead, but she’s standing so still there are only tiny, flickering movements in her posture. Nice!

Sadly, some critics who admire the film aren’t making a very good case for it. Richard Corliss, the thousand-year-old codger-critic for Time, harrumphs that this film is a wonderful throwback to good old-fashioned, restrained, non-gross-out horror films for grown-ups like we used to have back in the day when Roman Polanski was sodomizing his first underage girl. Then Corliss caps it off by comparing Paranormal Activity to those super great hippie-era experimental films we all miss so much:

PA [that’s Corliss’ cool way of referring to Paranormal Activity – ed.] has less in common with modern gore movies than with certain avant-garde films of the late ’60s, like Michael Snow’s Wavelength — a murder mystery in the form of a single, slow, 45-min. zoom shot through a room — and Morgan Fisher’s Phi Phenomenon, an 11-min. shot of a wall clock without a second hand. In Fisher’s film, viewers were meant to concentrate so intently that they could see the minute hand move. PA uses a similar strategy….

Doesn’t exactly make you want to rush right out and see PA, does it? Not unless they’re handing out tabs of acid in the lobby.

Corliss made it sound so stupid I started to wonder if I might be wrong about liking this film. Maybe I’m getting so I like too many new films, which was never an issue before in my entire life, ever. I mean, I’ve liked a lot of films lately: District 9, and In the Loop, and Inglourious Basterds, and The Informant! and A Serious Man

They can’t ALL be good, can they? Or is it possible that we’re waking up from a long stupid sleep and experiencing a burst of painful intelligence expressing itself in film form?

Yep, thinking it over, I’ll stand by it. Uncanny as it seems, that’s what’s happening. Enjoy it while it lasts! We’ll be stupid again soon!

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Add your own

  • 1. Dr. Luny  |  October 25th, 2009 at 11:42 am

    No, I think we’re still stupid, but every once in a while hollywood makes a good movie, and every once in a while, they make a few good movies in the same time period, but it’s nothing more than a fluke, unless satiating mindless American audiences with even more mindless cliche-ridden blockbusters is no longer Hollywood’s business model, or Americans are learning to appreciate good movies.

    Like I said, It’s a fluke.

  • 2. Wyse Guy  |  October 25th, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    The Painful Intelligence will continue.

    If the stupidity returns, we will kill it.

  • 3. Pablito  |  October 25th, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    I don’t like ghosts, so… it was boring for me. The supernatural doesn’t really set me on edge. Also I was sitting in between a lactose intolerant fat man farting and a bunch of Arab kids text messaging like maniacs, so that might have detracted a bit from the atmosphere. Still, it was a very clever film.

  • 4. chugs  |  October 25th, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    the question is should I waste 780Mb of bandwidth to download it?

  • 5. Hamsterfist  |  October 25th, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Loved the review and I am glad you did not give too much away. However I was slightly disappointed by this film. Why? I was so hyped and talked about it with all my friends before seeing it. BIG MISTAKE! I wish before watching it, I had known nothing about it. I would of pissed my pants.

  • 6. Flatulissimo  |  October 25th, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    Sorry, Eileen, I know that writing for the Exiled must make it appealing to out-contrary the contrarians, but this movie was just bad. I can cut it a great deal of slack for having no budget, I understand that there was no budget for actors, special effects, etc. But writing some sort of story or decent dialog before you start filming doesn’t cost anything, and those were the great weaknesses of this film.

    You do raise a good point, though: why hasn’t there been a decent “found footage” movie yet, anyway? Paranormal Activity, Blair Witch, Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, Zombie Diaries…there haven’t been that many and they have all been terrible!

  • 7. jimmy james  |  October 25th, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    And that codger-critic isn’t even right about Wavelength, is he? I know there’s a dead man but it ain’t exactly a murder mystery…

  • 8. rossiya  |  October 25th, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    I know Spielberg and tribe need to pimp this Israeli guy to get him off of the unlicensed locksmith racket. But no doubt the proceeds are distributed at Pacific Beach and the Gaslight district in furtherance of conquering the wayward shiksa, who would otherwise sleep in an unmanned bed as a sad outcome of US ‘endless warfare’ duties.

    So it was either this or straight porn. You can see quite plainly they had their back to the wall.

  • 9. Wilhelm  |  October 25th, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    The German movie Missing Allen is an actual good one in that fake documentary style.

  • 10. T. Hallman  |  October 25th, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    “If more of us would get out there and shoot small cheap horror films purporting to be “found footage” instead of grousing about the few “found footage” horror films we already have, it would be a better and sweeter world.”

    What if it’s found footage of Madeline Albright, Margaret Thatcher and Yasser Arafat in a ménage à trois? Horror, sure. But making the world and sweet and better place? Definitely for whomever has the videotape, to the tune of at least fifty million dollars to keep a lid on it. But would it change the world for anyone else? (Yasser didn’t even deliver the money shot.)

  • 11. Auberge Bartel  |  October 26th, 2009 at 4:44 am

    I couldn’t bear to read the last review of the Coens beyond the first otiose line. ‘Scary’ – fuck me. This is terrible writing.

    I thought ‘Blair Witch’ was shit. ‘PA’ is probably just as bad as that crappy monster film shot on a handycam. Being lauded as original in American film is rather like looking rich beside the homeless. One simple gimmick and the pant pissing commences apace.

    Eileen, you write like the kind of person who gushes over ‘Friends’.

  • 12. subzero  |  October 26th, 2009 at 4:59 am

    I personally hate “found footage” films. Intentionally bad quality with shaky image and crappy sound and horrible lighting. (It’s kinda like playing really dark video-games. “Yeah, I can’t see anything. Funny!”)

    Diary Of The Dead was a huge dissapointment for me. I was expecting your garden variety zombie flick and I got some unwatchable crap instead.

    If I have to choose a decent “found footage” It’d be [REC]. At least that had some pulse and some decent acting.

  • 13. rick  |  October 26th, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    I very much liked Blair Witch Project at the time and kind of distrust people who hated it. But still, the actors in this film suck next to the plausible Blair Witch cast. I just kept thinking of how every scene could have been done better, within the aesthetic established.

    If I’d been blindsided by this, I would have liked it a little more. Still, the thing’s weirdly watchable. Surprised there weren’t 25 of these things the year after Blair Witch came out…is even slight talent (basically copying Blair Witch Project with lesser actors) that rare?

  • 14. Allen  |  October 27th, 2009 at 1:40 am

    Didn’t like it … Not hostile to horror movies or ghosts, but it was a little too cheesy and the acting was a little too hackneyed/ and the characters were thoroughly unlikable.

    …found it unintentionally funny in many places but not quite in a good way.

    Filmmakers may have seen one too many ghost hunting tv shows.

  • 15. ray  |  October 28th, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    I’m a big fan of the found footage schtick. It always works on me. I think that it is because we do so much video viewing in our normal lives that we are trained to view that style as real. It’s a manipulative trick, but as I said, it works.

    I think that this is how the inevitable House Of Leaves movie should be shot. At least in part.

  • 16. az  |  October 31st, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    Personally, I liked the movie. Sure the acting was on par with BangBros, but the movie becomes much better when you think of it as Maury Jones: The Movie. (I mean the episodes where they have ghost stories rather than the usual paternity tests.)

  • 17. Pud  |  November 2nd, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    It sucked.

    The one GOOD thing about the movie is the actress. She’s delicious.

  • 18. ray  |  November 9th, 2009 at 7:05 am

    Okay I went and saw the movie yesterday, and maybe the last five minutes startled me, but other than that no, not one of my better movies. I really think that if people are going to make movies like this, they should get a better background on how the supernatural works, and things to aid “The Demonic activities” realism.

    A score 1-10 i give this maybe a 5-6 range.

  • 19. Ibn McVeigh Lives On!  |  November 13th, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    Speaking of Paranormal: how’s Obama’s economic policies working out for you folks?
    I guess hiring someone JUST BECAUSE he can articulate a sentence coherently -unlike the previous Tard- WASN’T really enough of a qualification for the job huh?

    Maybe you War Criminals should have gone with that squirrely little Dr from Texas who ACTUALLY FORESAW ALL THIS AND WHO HAD A *REAL* PLAN to address the issues that DIDN’T include stealing from the poor to give to the rich?

    Spooky shit man. And the worst thing of all is that they say once you go black you DON’T go back. Trick NO Treats, MF’s.

  • 20. April  |  November 15th, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    I loved it, and will see it again, I thought it was awesome.

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