2007: Enterprising fellow (Oren Peli) shoots a horror movie on the cheap, on digital video, in his own San Diego house, with a cast hired off Craigslist. The premise (as opposed to premises) is that Something in the house is going bump in the night, and the video-obsessed householder will use his favorite toy to capture evidence of Paranormal Activity while he and his girlfriend sleep. The film's spartan technique/style is effective, especially during fast-forward passages of the girlfriend sleepwalking - more precisely and more spookily, sleepstanding alongside their bed. After film festival showings and some tinkering (three different endings), the picture is released to theaters in 2009 and becomes a hit.
2010: With such success (box office upwards of $100 million) on such minimal outlay ($15K!), a sequel was inevitable. For Paranormal Activity 2, a name director is added (Tod Door in the Floor Williams), plus several actors with actual screen credits, and the cost balloons to $3M. Yet the formula remains much the same. Another SoCal home is the scene of peculiar violation - an apparent break-in during which nothing is stolen - and the owner has digital surveillance cameras installed. A good deal of the movie is photographed from their fixed perspectives. There's also quite a bit of home-movie-style shooting (even when no one is actually shooting home movies) and some Web-cam stuff. Bumps in the night again, doors opening or slamming, the family dog staring suspiciously at Something no one else can see. This time an infant (Paranorma's Baby?) is a key factor, and by the end of the movie, as in Paranormal number one, somebody is dead and somebody is oh so missing.
One of the great appeals of movies used to be that they looked terrific and beguiling from moment to moment - not just in the sense of glamour or beauty or exotic settings, but also as in "you don't see this every day." Now, more and more, movies look exactly like what we see every day: crummy camera-phone videos, smeary YouTube feeds, flat gray-green security monitors, Skype signals twitchy enough to bring on epileptic seizures.
Cinematically speaking, imaginative use can be made of this; the Paranormal movies do it better than that hysterically overrated cult film of a decade ago, The Blair Witch Project ... and a Blair variant of earlier this year, the canny pseudo-documentary The Last Exorcism, was way better than any of them. But I digress, and digressing isn't allowed from a fixed camera position.
I decided to post this comment not as a film review (I don't anticipate doing much out-and-out reviewing on this site) but to register one observation. People who go to see Paranormal Activity 2 will spend a lot of its running time watching nothing happening. We are introduced to a limited cast of characters, then to the home they share, then to the unchanging points of view of those half-dozen security cameras positioned to cover the main floor, the entryway, the pool outside, and the nursery upstairs. A rhythm of everyday nonevent is established and continues for some time before the onset of the oddities we're there to see. (We knowingly bought tickets to a horror movie, and most of us saw the previous Paranormal offering ... to which PA2 is both a sequel, commercially speaking, and a prequel, in its time frame.)
But some of those angles of view are pretty cagy. The camera looking down into the nursery "sees" not only the nursery, with the baby's crib in the righthand portion of the frame, but also the door from the second-floor hall, within shadow-throwing range of the head of the (offscreen) stairs, and also the door, near the foot of the crib, into another chamber. We never do get a clear look at that second chamber (the parents' bedroom?), but it boasts a couple of mirrors that enable us to follow someone who has walked out of camera range - and to rivet us with the possibility that someone, Something, else might appear in them.
Variations of this strategy play out with regard to other camera positions. And this itself is a variation on the classic horror-movie ploy - at least as old as Jane Randolph's nighttime walk along the edge of Central Park in the 1942 Cat People - of making anticipation and the unseen stimulate more potent unease than anything that could be staged directly. In some of the vintage postings on this site I complain about filmmakers too inept to do their jobs right, so that viewers have to finish the movie in their own heads in order to enjoy it. I wouldn't care to see too many movies based on the Paranormal model, but these filmmakers do know what they're doing, and their shrewd minimalism legitimately lures us into becoming accomplices.
First posted October 29, 2010