Friday, October 18, 2013

Film Friday: Paranormal Activity (2007)

Earlier this week, we talked about how too many horror films fail to take advantage of the things that naturally scare us. Instead, they rely on a final reveal to scare the audience along with a few moments of shock as their monster jumps out at the audience or a few moments of gore as they try to scare us by showing a bloody death. Paranormal Activity is different. This is a super smart film.

** Major Spoiler Alert **
Paranormal Activity is a “found footage” film about a young couple, Micah and Katie, who have moved into a new house in San Diego in September 2006. As the story opens, Micah is setting up a camera as Katie tell us that she has been haunted periodically throughout her life by an evil presence. Micah is determined to capture evidence of this entity on film.
After a few nights, small things begin to happen: items move, lights flash, etc. These things scare Katie and she hires a psychic, Dr. Fredrichs, to come examine the house. He specializes in hauntings and he warns Katie that she is not dealing with a ghost, but is instead dealing with a demon. He tells her he cannot help her, but he gives her the name of a man who can. He warns her and Micah not to try to communicate with this demon. Micah, however, refuses to take Fredrichs seriously.
Over the next few days, things keep getting worse. Katie wants to call the demonologist, but Micah keeps stopping her. Then Micah buys a Ouija board despite promising Katie he would not do this. They fight and storm out of the room. When they do, the demon takes over the Ouija board and causes it to burst into flames. After this, the demon becomes increasingly more powerful as we move steadily toward the ending.
What This Film Does Right
Wow, where to begin? Let’s start with the fact that they focused on believability, they eschewed cheap gore, and they did exactly what we discussed earlier in the week: they used human nature against the audience. Three great choices!

In terms of believability, they chose a well-known bit of mythology that most of us fear deep down: demonic possession, and they handled it extremely well. For example, to make the audience buy into the demon, they ratcheted up the danger each night as the movie progressed. This made the demon seem more plausible because we feel that we understand how it gained its power: the more they fight, the more the thing grows, and when Micah buys the Ouija board, it really becomes strong. Since you see the cause and effect, it all starts to feel natural to you.

This idea also plays on the part of human nature that looks for patterns. By ratcheting up the demon’s powers and giving the demon more power to manipulate our world each day, the writer establishes a pattern which the audience will recognize and extrapolate. The result is a constant feeling of dread as we see this thing getting stronger and stronger without end. That is ominous to us and makes us feel trapped because we know it will soon be too powerful for us to handle. The writer then makes the characters oblivious to this pattern which triggers our need to warn people of a danger. And since we can’t fulfill that need, we end up feeling helpless and anxious.
Important to maintaining the believability, at no point, does the demon do anything we can’t imagine a ghost doing. At no point, does it show more power than we imagine a ghost or demon might have. At no point does it do something that makes us doubt that it is real. And the more real something feels, the more scary it will be. It even behaves consistently, which adds to the realism. Indeed rather than randomly doing scary things, this demon has a purpose. Interestingly, at no point are we ever really told what it wants, but its behavior is so consistent and so obvious that we realize the demon is sexually obsessed with Katie and it wants her. It acts like a nasty, obsessed (and supernatural) jilted boyfriend, and it portrays the role perfectly. This makes its motive real to us as we can understand this from our own lives. In fact, this is a motive that will already scare a great many people in the audience who have dealt with an obsessed ex-lover.

Beyond this, the director expertly plays upon our instinctual fears. The demon attacks at night. It cannot be seen or fought. It can be next to you and you wouldn’t know it. It cannot be escaped because it can find Katie anywhere. In fact, it has followed her since her youth. Each of those things terrifies us and triggers our “fight or flight” mechanisms. Then they go further. In one scene, we watch as Katie gets out of bed and stands by the bed for more than half an hour watching Micah sleep. This is amazingly creepy to us because we are completely vulnerable when we sleep and the idea of someone standing over us as we sleep is a terrifying one. It also suggest unnatural behavior on the part of Katie, which tells us that the demon is gaining the power to possess her.
All of this is compounded by some smart choices regarding the characters. Throughout the film, the characters do things they’ve been told not to do. But unlike most horror films where the characters are just morons, these two are doing this because it’s in their natures to do them. They are told the demon feeds on negative energy, yet they fight. They fight because their emotions are raw and they are an incompatible couple. Micah is told repeatedly not to use a Ouija board, yet he does. He does so because this is all a game to him and he thinks he can solve the problem in this manner. We know better, but he doesn’t. This frustrates us and makes us feel helpless that we can’t stop them. It fills us with dread too because we know the consequences. And what’s best about this, is that it again draws upon moments in our own lives where people we know refused to follow good advice and then found themselves in trouble. Thus, once again, the film evokes emotions that are already within us rather than trying to get us to imagine something we’ve never felt.

Then, as we near the ending, everything begins to fall apart. We can’t trust Micah anymore because he stopped Katie from calling the demonologist and then he took away her cross and burns it. At best, this is bad judgment and cruel. At worst, this is the final straw which leaves her defenseless to the demon. And either way, he is clearly a hazard at this point. At the same time, Katie puts us into an impossible position. It is time to flee the house. Even Katie agrees. But then Katie suddenly refuses. Yes, she is showing signs of possession, but what do you do with her at that point? If you care about her, and the audience does, then you can’t just abandon her. But it’s clear you can’t stay either. And Micah shows no ability to force her to leave. Thus, the audience is faced with an amazingly difficult decision and ultimate must choose a path they know they will regret.

(spoiler alert reminder)
Finally, we come the ending. There is a huge twist here in a way as the ending unfolds in a most unexpected way. Indeed, throughout this film, we are constantly told that the danger is to Katie. The demon wants her and it has followed her. She cannot escape it... but Micah can, he can just walk away. In conformance to this, she is terrified of the demon and Micah is not. What we don’t suspect watching the film, however, is that the demon will use her to kill Micah. So it comes as a real shock when that happens. This shock is genuinely frightening because it wasn’t something the audience considered. The entire film had built up to the demon taking or killing Katie, and now it instead killed Micah. Unexpected twists like this strongly enhance the terror of a horror movie. The film even does a fantastic job of not showing what is happening, which leaves the audience on the edge of their seats as they wait to find out.
And in terms of this being a twist, it is very well done. Up to this point, you’ve been focused on what the demon wants to do to Katie, but now it flips that around. Yet, when it happens, you immediately remember a whole series of clues that this would be the ending which you missed or misunderstood. For example, the demon wants Katie sexually, i.e. it’s not looking to kill her. It attacks the picture of Micah, but not her, showing hostility to him only. It possesses her several times, once controlling her enough to leave the house and the second time making her stand over Micah as he slept. There is even a strong suggestion that the demon possessed her when she was eight and made her burn her house down. That shows it can use her maliciously. And then Dr. Fredrichs flees the house in a near panic because he senses that the demon resents anyone who helps her. All of this suggests that the demon’s hate is focused on Micah... but you don’t see that because the writer cleverly misdirected you throughout by pointing to the danger to Katie. This is clever, it’s like undermining everything you thought you knew for certain right at the end.

To sum this up, this is a brilliant film. Rather than trying to scare you with fake gore and a horrific ending, this film steadily builds your level of terror step by step by playing on fears you already have, by making you feel helpless in light of the characters’ mistakes and lack of knowledge, and by making each scene count. In fact, you never know what will happen in any scene, if anything, and that keeps you nervous and on edge. Then it finishes strongly by expanding the threat in a way we should have seen coming, but didn’t.

The end result is a truly terrifying film that drew in amazing numbers. With a budget of just $16,687, this film made an incredible $210,391,025, and it was well-deserved.


Anonymous said...

Yeah -- nope, not seeing this one. I can safely say it's not my thing and I'd rather not spend 90 minutes with my stomach in a knot!

However, it certainly sounds interesting and well thought out. And it's nice to see such a micro-budgeted movie rake in the big bucks (especially a movie that deserves it!).

Maybe it works here, I don't know... but I read an article bemoaning movies that use found footage/surveillance cameras/etc. Instead of YouTube filmmakers making their movies look like Hollywood, Hollywood is now making movies that look like they belong on YouTube!

P.S. On an unrelated note, character actor Ed Lauter passed away. You've definitely seen him before - he was great in everything!

Tennessee Jed said...

Rare is the film that does a good job with this scenario, so it's nice to see one that apparently does. Like Scott, not normally my genre, but like the world's most interesting man might say "I don't often watch films involving the paranormal, but when I do, I prefer to watch one that doesn't suck."

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Most do stink. If you're going to watch one, then watch this one. It grabs you fairly quickly and it really holds your attention throughout. And it definitely scares you. This is one of the best and the fact it was made for $17k really speaks well to the director.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, This one will terrify you. You should give it a shot though. Watch it during the day. :)

I'm not a fan of the found footage films because they tend to become an excuse for bad direction, bad writing, and cutting corners. They are also often difficult to watch because they overdo the shakycam and the distortion etc.

Think about Blair Witch. Blair Witch used this device just to shake things up and to let themselves escape dead ends in their story. It resulted in a very silly film ultimately. Cloverfield showed you mainly the ground as people ran. It was distracting and unpleasant and it resulted in a film that gives you motion sickness. Apollo 18 threw so many film-scratches and so much snow at you that you barely saw the film itself.

This one doesn't do that. This one remains fairly similar to a regular movie in terms of image quality. But then it uses the idea in excellent ways. For example, he mounts the camera, which lets them have things happen where you can't see them, but while you can still hear them. So you end up even more tense because you want the camera to race to the other room and show you what is happening. It also lets them speed up the film so you can see things like her standing over the bed for a long time without getting bored. You could never do that in a normal movie. And it lets them skip parts of the story where nothing happens to keep the film going. You couldn't do any of those things without this method.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. I saw that about Ed Lauter. He was in some of my favorite films and my favorite X-Files. RIP

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

He was also one of the funniest things in Not Another Teen Movie.

Blair Witch, in retrospect, was a great example of movie marketing but I don't think the movie itself has aged that well, now that we're talking about it. I see it mentioned now and then but considering all the hype at the time (I think it was on the cover of Time or Newsweek), it's kinda disappeared.

When I went to UCF to check out their film school, the woman wouldn't shut the hell up about the movie (the filmmakers attended that school)!

AndrewPrice said...

Yeah, that was hilarious. :)

On Blair Witch, it was absolutely marketing over quality. And time has exposed that. They barely even show it these days and few people talk about it. Time does tend to expose films that were just about hype. There a great many "greatest films ever... will be talked about forever" that vanished once the marketing machine turned off.

djskit said...

I like to try and predict where plots are going (or should go) as the movie progresses so here it goes:
Haven't seen this movie, but in reading your summary of the plot progression, I would have liked to see the pay-off being the demon switch gears and slowly over take the husband (would explain much of his odd behavior) so the demon can consummate his lust for the woman (as her husband – cue the creepy love scene!). The final terror being that the wife believes she is now free of the demon, and not realize, she is married to it! Dan Dun Duh!

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, That would be an interesting twist, but it wouldn't have worked under the rules they established. This demon doesn't act human -- it acts unnaturally. So if it did possess the husband, she would know right away because he wouldn't be capable of showing normal human emotions... just rage and obsession.

As an aside, what's interesting in the film is that you don't even get the sense the demon can take over a person until near the very end of the film, even though it has clearly done so earlier... you didn't quite put together the full meaning of that event (when she wakes up and watches Micah sleep, or when she sleepwalks outside). And by the time you do get the sense that it can possess someone, the question really is whether or not Katie is possessed because she is the one acting strangely.

T-Rav said...

Yep, I would pretty much agree with all of this. Another thing I would add, as we talked about earlier this week, is the way the movie maximizes suspense throughout. There's no soundtrack, no fast-paced action, just lots of long pauses where you're looking at nothing and waiting for something to happen, and the longer it goes, the more anxious you get. For example, at the end, after the off-camera screaming stops, there's an interval of at least a minute where we're just staring at the feed of the empty bedroom, before Micah's body flies into the camera out of nowhere. It makes you jump like nothing else, but what's worse is the long wait for something to happen.

There's a lot of this in the sequel, too (which was also scary, though I think it did a bit too much to establish backstory we didn't need); after the final scene, there's another pause of 60 to 90 seconds where you see nothing but black, waiting for something else to happen--and finally the end credits roll.

Like you say, that low-key aspect to the film makes it much more believable, and thus far scarier.

Kit said...


That sounds like a Twilight Zone plot. What, you think you're safe? Nope! You're still screwed.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I agree completely. The most terrifying moments in this film are when you are waiting for something to happen. You know something is happening... you can often hear it... but you can't see it. So you stare at the screen, straining your eyes, and then suddenly it happens right at the point where you are most focused on the screen and it freaks you out.

This film really does expertly manipulate us in ways that so few other horror films manage to do. It's very impressive.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I would make for a great ending, especially as horror movies often have twists like that, but it wouldn't work in this particular instance.

T-Rav said...

Interestingly, I saw on a site somewhere (think it was that there were several different endings shot to this movie. Everything would have been the same up to and including Micah's death, but instead of Katie's face turning into the demon's as she looked at the camera, one ending had her staring into it and cutting her own throat, another had the demon leaving her at that point so she would take the fall for her boyfriend's death, and I think there was another one that I don't remember.

I'm curious as to how any of those would have gone.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, Apparently, the original ending which the studio replaced involved her coming back to the room alone, covered in blood with the knife. She sits there for two days until the cops come up the room and order her to drop the knife. The demon leaves her at that point and she does something like move toward the cops and they shoot her.

I think I like the ending they used best, but it would be interesting to see the others.

T-Rav said...

Agreed. The ending they used seems most in keeping with the simple set-up of the story overall, but the alternate endings are fun to think about.

AndrewPrice said...

Agreed. It's always fun to think of alternate endings.

Koshcat said...

I find most "horror" films to be more funny than scary but there are a few that creep me out. This is one of them. Because of how it was shot and acted it felt more real. I watch it alone at night. Had trouble falling asleep that night.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, It's rare that I get creeped out by a horror film, but this one worked on me. This one felt real and it stuck with me too when I went to bed.

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