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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Paranormal Activity

Last weekend my perfect husband and I went to the Essex Cinemas to see Paranormal Activity. Dale Chapman, the always genial manager of the theater, told us that people were coming out of the movie completely freaked out, scared senseless by this supposedly terrifying saga of a young couple haunted by an unseen entity in their oh-so-chic San Diego McMansion. He remembered a gaggle of teenage girls who were so frightened after the 8:00 pm show on Friday that they were afraid to go home for fear of what might be lurking in the dark. Uh huh.

I haven’t seen so much hoopla over a “scary movie” since The Exorcist was first released back in 1973. Now this was a national trauma. People passed out, threw up, broke down and checked in to mental institutions over that religious potboiler. I couldn’t imagine Paranormal Activity was going to be that creepy. Many people have also compared Paranormal Activity to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, but I think that is mostly because both films were shot on the cheap and done in a documentary style. There is one other parallel which is more Blair Witch than Exorcist and that is that it’s what you don’t see which creates the spooky atmosphere. For those looking for out-and-out gore, there’s Saw VI, also currently playing, but Paranormal Activity aims for a more intellectual scare. It’s what isn’t obvious in the night that first time writer/director Oren Peli wants to have you fretting about.

In Paranormal Activity, happily unmarried Katie (Katie Featherston; Mutant) and Micah (Micah Sloat, in an impressive debut) are living a dream lifestyle for a 20-something couple. Micah is an apparently very successful day trader while Katie is a graduate student, living a (seemingly) cushy life without a worry in the world. At least they were until Katie admits to a wee problem she has endured since she was a kid. It seems a malevolent spirit has been reaching out to her ever since her family home mysteriously burned to the ground when she was only eight. Oh my, just a little thing to have kept secret until after she and Micah had shacked up together. So, for the next fifteen years or so she has done her best to ignore the poltergeist on her tail and has managed to do fairly well at it until now. How fortunate for her that Micah lists his two favorite hobbies as videotaping everything he can and pissing off evil ghosties as often as possible. How unfortunate for us that this pretty much constitutes the gist of the rest of the movie.

The tiny sounds that terrify these un-newlyweds just show how young and impressionable they really are. It also shows how much things have changed in the last thirty years. With a weekly dose of guts and grossness splayed out across the screen (and by this I mean movies like the Saw series and not the latest Lindsay Lohan release), Generations X, Y and Me have become completely desensitized to gore and the shock value of a single head turning around and spewing pea soup at the camera. It’s what they don’t see that scares them. Maybe this explains why today’s group seems to lack the same enthusiasm for sex that mine did in our 20s. You know the saying: “How you going to keep them from upchucking the farm after they’ve seen Paris?” A steady stream of snatching a glimpse (or glimpsing a snatch) of every starlet from Ms. Hilton (who has had more men spend the night in her than every stayed at one of the hotels bearing her family name) to Britney Spears (and who hasn’t speared that thing?), the prospect of what could happen between the attractive Featherston and Sloat when they hit the sheets seems to have been replaced by the notion that watching them cower on the corner of the bed is more entertaining than the obvious.

One thing is clear: this Paranormal Activity is definitely for younger people. Anyone who has been married for more than ten years will attest that waking up at the tiniest noise just doesn’t happen. At my house things creak, go bump in the night, and mysterious rumblings occur regularly, and I’ve become so used to all the racket escaping from my perfect husband while he blissfully snores and farts himself into oblivion that it would take a jetliner crashing into our bedroom to disturb my slumber. And anybody with children will tell you that if they hear weird noises in the dark they aren’t going to get out of bed until one of the kids screams that someone has lost an eye. In real life, only the young and childless are going to believe in the spirits Paranormal Activity has to offer. Perhaps, for them, the movie should have been called Paranoid Activity instead. 

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