“Less is more” might not seem like a persuasive theory in recessionary days.
Props to Oren Peli, then, for making the notion swing with his money-farming buzz-generator of a feature debut. $153,469,744 from a $15,000 budget is the heartiest application of creative mathematics we’ve seen lately, even factoring in the added cost of a fun-to-follow screenings-on-demand web campaign. Much as we liked Avatar, it’s nice to know that more-is-more isn’t the only route to hard returns and a night out at the flicks that delivers as promised.
Peli’s less-is-more pitch plays out lethally on screen too, slipping into a set-up so bare-boned it positively screams confidence. Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat – no executive name-changers here, then) occupy a new home in San Diego, where odd noises disturb their sleep. Katie reveals she’s been ghosted by a “presence” since she was young and invites a psychic round; Micah tripod-mounts a digi-camera to secure evidence of supernatural disruption. He gets it. Boy, does he get it.
Bargain-basement plotting? Sure, but Peli and his leads thread insinuation into it. Like many great haunted horrors (The Haunting, The Innocents), PA feeds on character psychology. Tensions stem from Micah and Katie’s coupling: she wants to bring in the ghostbusters while he thinks erecting his tech tool will fix the fear, just like a dude. (Peeping Tom’s abiding influence twists into new, malign shapes here.) A psychic, Dr Fredrichs (Mark Fredrichs, obviously) tells the couple their “demon” gorges on bad vibes. Might as well stay, then – Micah and Katie are serving banquets...
Katie’s backstory hums equally with suggestion. Someone appeared at the foot of her bed when she was young... but to do what, exactly? When we learn that Katie’s childhood home burnt down, we wonder what demons she’s lugging round. The horned kind? Damaged kind? Abused kind? Peli’s conclusion seems to chuck us a definitive answer, but it’s the grey areas that initially lure you in.
Broader socio-cultural intrigues also haunt the film. Pointing a camera at a nasty set-up, we’re told, exacerbates its nastiness. Seems true enough: just watch reality TV’s horror shows. Despite found-footage precedents such as Cannibal Holocaust and Blair Witch, PA does tap into its own cultural moment. Granted, Peli’s keen stylisations might be about as “real” as so-called “reality” TV.
But his formal precision packs purpose, Micah’s flash-git camera giving sure perspective on bedroom and corridor outside. Their shadows resemble quicksand, sucking us in the more we probe, just as Blair Witch conjured witches from trees. The sound mix is no less impeccable: one discreet use of digital tweakery dissecting your nerves with needle-point subtlety.
Far from simply making a shoot’n’run grasp at authenticity, Peli persuades us that the camera ought to be where it is while simultaneously flaunting his fakery. We’re brazenly primed for pending scares by fast-forwards through the night-time scenes, followed by slow-downs to signal imminent bowel-loosening mayhem. Perversely, this forewarning intensifies the meticulous, point-by-point buildup of terror, Peli smartly mobilising Hitchcock’s contention that suspense is more impactful than shock.
Be warned another way, though: there’s nothing like sharing that suspense with a willing audience. You might have thought synching PA’s DIY style to home-viewing would be a neat fit, but in practice, you miss the communal kick of fear infecting a room like the flu. Without that buzz to sweep you up, PA stumbles slightly on points of credulity. Like, is there really just one demonologist in California? Would Micah’s machismo really hold out for so long? Like a financially inverse Avatar, PA highlights the benefits of seeing a film at the flicks rather than waiting for rental.
There’s next to no extras to sell the DVD, either. The package? We get alt endings, none as good as the scarier one that Spielberg – little Stevie’s hidden mean streak, eh? – put to Peli. Lounge’s review disc didn’t contain these alternatives but most of us have seen them online, and they’re not much to crawl out of bed for.
The winning entry in a ‘Film Your Own Paranormal Activity’ contest was also unavailable at press time. Might be good, might not. But if you’re interested in production stories, or if you’re some sick masochist who fancies watching the uncut version of Katie hovering freakishly by the bedside for hours, you won’t get your kicks here.
Maybe a better disc will be lobbed our way soon. If not, the sequel will. Good luck to it: if PA2 can muster half the slow-build insinuation and – damn it – sheer shared entertainment clout of the original, a good night out awaits. We remember Blair Witch 2, though. And we’ll wager that more will add up to less in this instance.
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