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October 13, 2009

Paranormal packs predictable horror premises

There are a select few horror films from my childhood that I still won’t dare watch. For a long time one of them was 1999's The Sixth Sense. How that film inspired shivers of trepidation! Ghost stories have always gotten to me; something about the oppressive, beyond-your-control nature of a ghost has always seemed more frightening than any zombie or alien. Psycho killers and vampires are easy enough to get rid of: a bullet to the head or a stake to the heart, respectively. A werewolf? Silver bullets. But how do you get rid of an angry ghost? It’s not like you can kill the thing.

But a fresh viewing of The Sixth Sense showed me that my childhood neurosis in connection to the film was relatively unwarranted, given how much less frightening the recent viewing proved to be. A grown-up and melodramatic Mischa Barton on The O.C. had somehow reduced the little vomiting girl to something entirely ineffective; and Haley Joel Osment’s once chilling line, “I see dead people,” had become yet another impotent, oft-repeated bit of dialogue on an AFI countdown list. I had become immune to the scare tactics of a film that had at one time kept me sleeping in my mother’s bed for more than a month. I had climbed my Everest of horror films! Nevertheless, recent ghostly chillers like The Ring and The Orphanage had me quaking in my boots.

So how does Paranormal Activity, an overhyped wannabe-Blair Witch Project, fare with a reviewer whose history with ghost films usually amounts to watching them from behind her fingers? Riding the coattails of Blair Witch’s viral marketing campaign, Paranormal Activity has been cultishly publicized as a low-budget homemade “documentary” detailing the spooky late-night happenings befalling a 20-something couple, Micah and Katie, in their San Diego home. Unfortunately the documentary gambit detracts from the atmosphere since the scares depend upon how much the audience invests itself in this assumed reality.

The film’s premise stems from Micah’s decision to purchase a hand-held video camera so that he can observe what is going on in the bedroom while he and Katie are asleep. Katie talks about being haunted by something her whole life and suggests that it has followed her to this house, prompting Micah to man up and “get to the bottom of things” by capturing something on film. The film then idly spends half of its run-time detailing the humdrum events of Micah and Katie’s lives during their waking hours as a means of grounding the spooky nighttime sequences in a relatable reality. Director and writer Oren Peli attempts to build a mounting tension here by using the “less is more” philosophy, slowly giving the audience more and more disturbing phenomena at night.

This approach, however, essentially backfires. It becomes all too easy to foresee what’s next for Micah and Katie as an undisturbed sleep in their haunted house becomes an impossibility. The obligatory psychic is brought in to validate the couple’s claims by informing the audience that he can “feel a presence.” This leads to the hackneyed Ouija board cliche and books and Internet sites confirming for us, “Yes, this is real, folks, and it has happened before. See, it’s printed right here in this demonology book. With pictures!” Peli’s paranormal gimmickry goes on to non-inventively borrow every trick from the ghost story playbook. Whether you’ve seen it in The Exorcist or Poltergeist, The Blair Witch Project or Japanese horror, objects moving of their own accord, unexplained thumps in the night, and demonic possessions just don’t have a strong impact when it feels all too familiar. Peli does, however, touch upon an interesting power dynamic that complements the ghost story well: Micah, as a man, is helpless and can offer no protection to his girlfriend. How this plays out is one of the more enriching aspects of the film.

When you’re dealing with a film packed with recycled motifs and banking on the power of suggestion, the most basic ghost devices put to use here render the film largely amateurish. The casual moviegoer without any foreknowledge of the film's production will get more mileage out of this tame offering than the seasoned horror buffs yawning in the aisles.