Saturday, September 26, 2009

Paranormal Activity

Waiting in line at midnight in the Castro is a cold experience. At least it was this Thursday, even around the corner from the Castro Theatre (it was a long line), with Orphan Andy's diner serving as a partial windbreak. The preview screening I was there to see turned out to be more of a 1:00 am thing, once all the RSVP lists had been checked and attendees' hands stamped, but inside was a brightly lit full house, an open concession, and the Mighty Wurlitzer, all extremely welcome sights.

Less welcome was the narrative of barefoot, penniless Hollywood pitched in an onstage preshow plea for buzz-creating Tweets and Facebook posts. I can't complain too much, I guess, because the screening itself was free - the modern, less dire equivalent of having to listen to a Bible sermon before you can collect your bowl at the soup kitchen - but for the love of god, I was cold and hungry, it was 1:00 am, and hello, word of mouth is not a new invention. Even if blogging leaves a printed record as opposed to chatter over the water cooler, it's still not (in most cases) a job. If your film deserves buzz, it will get it. Shut up and roll the movie.

The kicker, of course, is that Paranormal Activity really does deserve a lot of word of mouth. It's genuinely scary - jump-in-your-seat, afraid-to-be-home-alone-in-the-dark-after-you-see-it scary - although the preshow trivia quiz presented by a rep possibly presented a bit too much of a behind-the-scenes peek into the pitch meeting (Exorcist? Blair Witch? How about The Exorcist crossed with Blair Witch?). The movie centers a 30-ish white couple living in a two-storey house with leather sofas, a wall-size flatscreen TV, and a pool... uh, remind me again, Hollywood marketing machine, why your poor-me, low-budget, grassroots-please whine feels so insincere?

True, Paranormal Activity IS a small movie by current Hollywood standards, or any standards. There are virtually no special effects, unless you count time-lapse photography, and all the action occurs on a single set. It has a raw, shot-on-video appearance because duh, it's told from the point of view of the main characters filming themselves on video. Expense-wise, we're talking a bare step above one guy and a webcam.

So again, why the cry for help to the audience? Please-buzz-about-this-movie-if-you-want-more-horror-films-like-this? Well, it tells us a lot about Hollywood culture, I guess - is the common wisdom among those who bankroll films really so far off the mark that you have to show them evidence that audiences want, y'know, good films? Without spending millions upon millions on computer graphics? (The trailer emphasizes the audience experience in a way that makes this look like an event film, something you have to see in the theater, which is an argument typically only made for IMAX and big CG-effects movies.) The cynic in me suspects this is all an exercise in audience-blaming - i.e., if we don't provide enough free ink in praise of films we enjoy, then it's our own damn fault if good films don't get made. Charming.

Well, at the risk of playing right into the hands of all this: Paranormal Activity is a good film. It will scare you, and its scares are wisely based more on your imagination - what you don't see rather than what you do - and spooky sounds. It's worth seeing in a theater for the sound reason alone (I saw Blair Witch on video instead of in the theater because the venue in our area was always sold out, and I think much of what made that movie work was its sound design, which does not have anywhere near the impact on home video). Aside from that, and the shared audience experience of the screams and moans and seat-jumps, you just simply will want company when you see it. It's the sort of movie you really would not want to watch alone. Or, for that matter, watch with a full audience in a theater and then go home to be alone in an empty apartment, like I did.

Either way, you'll probably sleep with the lights on. And then blog about it.

I feel like such a tool, but it really was good. See it, horror fans.

Addendum: A rewatch at a lightly populated matinee showing in a local multiplex venue provided a totally different audience reaction. Namely laughter, and catcalls of "That was stupid!" after the shock ending, which reminded an unimpressed Mark of the opening credits of Criss Angel: Mindfreak. The moral of this story? The venue matters, and what's scary and exciting in the middle of the night with an audience happily ready to be scared can look like plodding, badly shot video footage by the light of day. YMMV.

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