FILM: Review: Paranormal Activity

Written by Jordan Petersen on . Posted in Film

Well, this is quite certainly too late to be helpful, but here it is anyway. I know, I should have seen this earlier, and reviewed it before Halloween came and went, because now no one cares.

But oh well. Live and learn. I think this is still a pertinent conversation, because this is a very pertinent film.

I’m sure you’ve heard the hype — that it was made for, I believe, just over eleven thousand dollars, which is nothing. It’s like finding a penny in your pocket and deciding to use it to start a business.

You may have also heard about how much it’s making in the theaters. To be specific, the current total box office number, as of November 4th, is $87,847,574. Let’s be clear. That’s just shy of $90 million, which is roughly 8,000 times more the cost of making the film, or, in other words, Paranormal Activity managed to turn an 800,000 percent profit. That’s better than Napolean Dynamite or Juno. Combined. By, like, a lot.

So what is it about this film? What did they do to make it so scary? Well, I went to find out.

First of all, it’s important to note that people didn’t pay $90 million to see this film because it was made for $11,000. They went because people (a lot of people) were saying that this was the scariest film ever. That’s the way it was marketed, and word-of-mouth, always the most powerful form of advertising, supported the hype. I was actually nervous when I sat down in the theater. “Is this going to really scare me? And do I want to be, really, that scared?”

I won’t tell you much at all about the film. It was well done for what it was. It had kind of a Blair Witch/Cloverfield aesthetic about it — “This is real.” It was a couple of people with a camera, trying to capture “paranormal activity.” It deals with demonic haunting and possession, and portrays it with an impressively minimalist style. There was never a point at which I felt like the film was biting off more than its 11 grand could chew. And the film never suffered from the low-budget, “look how cool it is we’re makin’ a film!” vibe that I warily expected. These guys knew what they were doing and how to do it.

Another thing that impressed me was something else that I actually did expect, and was not disappointed by. There was no gore. None. This was practically PG stuff when it came to that. It was rated R for language, because one of the two main characters defaults on everybody’s favorite four-letter word when he gets really scared and doesn’t know what to say.

But the fact that there was no gore was, to me, extremely impressive. First of all, it cut costs for them. Secondly, it forced both the filmmakers and the audience to think deeply about what it is that actually makes us afraid. Is it carnage? No. That either excites us or makes us sick. It’s cheap. What really freaks us out is the tangibly unseen — that which affects us dramatically, but which also remains totally unknowable and unquantifiable.

For a lot of people, this film was truly terrifying. To my deep regret (and secret relief), I couldn’t get far enough out of my film student skin to really emotionally invest or suspend my disbelief. So I left thinking that it was a little slow-moving. Don’t get me wrong, there were some scenes that were extremely effective for me and my eyes were bulging a little during a couple of choice moments, but I was ultimately unafraid by the end. I hadn’t experienced any real scares.

But the fact is that it really is scaring a huge number of people. Smart people People who have got it together. And not because they’re somehow being fooled into thinking it was real, but because of where they’re coming from. This is a very personal film for a lot of people and that’s where it draws its power. If you’ve had some dark experiences, you might connect to this film in a way that ends up being pretty traumatic. And, excuse me for saying this, but that’s pretty awesome.

Jordan Petersen is a film correspondent for Rhombus. Look for his review of Jared Hess’ Gentlemen Broncos on Thursday.

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