Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Horror of No-Activity

This is an edited version of my review of Paranormal Activity which Aint It Cool News published:


Paranormal Activity is the scariest film I've seen in years. Unpredictable, hyper realistic, it left me (and much of the audience) physically shaking. But unlike most examples of the genre it's a horror film built almost exclusively on dread, on empty time, empty spaces, more on lack of movement than movement. The horror resists being defined by one thing and it gradually seeps into the whole film.

The story is simple enough - a couple experiencing paranormal activity in their house decide to set up a camera to catch any strange behaviour while they're asleep - but it's the execution that really scores. The film divides into documented sections (like 'October 6, 2006, Night #11") where we watch the bedroom via night vision while the rest of the film deals with Kate and Micah's reactions the next morning and the growing tension inside the house. Initially the day drama feels like a relief to the horror sections but more and more it just accentuates our dread for when the next "night #" title comes up. By about Night #19 there were shudders and loud moans from the audience, as in 'I don't know how much more of this I can take'.

Looking back, however, the film really only has a few big scares (including one which gave everyone a collective heart attack). The real horror comes from a strange in-between space where you're not sure how to react or are anxiously waiting for the characters to respond. But the more you go crazy worrying about what will happen the less the film has to do to scare the living shit out of you.

Part of what makes Paranormal Activity work though, as opposed to other DV horror (like Open Water), are the performances. For the first 15 minutes, the two leads appear like non-professional actors - there's no particular realism they're trying to achieve, their mannerisms feel goofy, amateurish. But then you realise it's because there's no fourth wall. They don't act 'real' because it feels like they're not acting. Instead, they respond like any other contemporary couple - with a reflexive, detached attitude in which the horror is just something cool to record, something to joke about. But as the happenings increase, the film turns that distance against them.

That's what makes Paranormal Activity more than just a horror film. Like The Ring, it fully meets the challenge of creating horror in the digital age. As the internet and the screen increasingly become the windows through which we experience the world, our own ways of seeing develop a vicarious structure. We see things from a distance, encode even the most shocking of things within a banal, ironic frame. It's an automatic form of demystification that becomes a coping mechanism for a rapidly changing and increasingly strange world.* Anything unknown is Googled. Anything traumatic (ie. sept 11) is reproduced from a hundred different angles. Horror films begin to work the same way. No matter how scary the film tries to be we always approach it from a safe distance where we can enjoy the scares. However, when that very distance becomes part of the horror itself, the effect is not just scary it's traumatic. Part of the horror of The Ring, for example, was that it directly addressed our own distance to the screen - the possibility that what was in there (the tv) could also be out here was traumatic.

There is no distance with Paranormal Activity. Our comfort zone, our sense of superiority, is already depicted (and subverted) in the characters and on the screen. From Micah's jokey and detached fascination with the demon to the way the couple use technology to examine what happened post-event. So much of the time we are watching Kate and Micah rewatching what happened while they were sleeping, or researching on the internet a similar case, or examining the audio for signs. Yet despite all this, when the horror does actually happen, we don't know where to look, what's going to happen, or where to retreat. We are immobilised, forced to confront the gap that exists between us and the object. The previous ironic detachment is revealed to be actually a form of fantasmic connection: it allows us to maintain our control over the object without actually confronting it. The direct confrontation with the object is actually a point of violent rupture which shatters how we are defined. Our true subject position is in fact a 'no-subject' position, a point of immobility, of pure gaze. In this way, Paranormal Activity engages our own reflexive attitude, twists it and throws it right back at us, in the process becoming a true horror of the sublime.

When the film ended, it cut to a white screen with strange sounds and subtle digital interference. The lights in the cinema didn't return. For about five minutes, the audience I was with didn't know how to react. The feeling in the cinema again became one of pure dread, not knowing if something else was going to happen. Eventually someone waved their hand in front of the projector allowing the audience to laugh. The laugh though was a nervous one, conscious that any reaction was better than the horror of no reaction, of uncertainty.

Despite all this, the film's most shocking feature has been its distribution. Not only have Dreamworks yet to set a release date (the film was first screened in 2007), they may have remade the film. A person who saw the film over a year ago told me that the ending I saw was an alternate ending, completely different and "not nearly as good". The original ending was apparently much more intense and brutal, while also sticking closer to the tone of the film with more action taking place off screen. The ending I saw did indeed feel like the one time the film went Hollywood. It's abrupt end and self-referential tone was a little too obvious for a film that constantly challenged how you reacted to it. The person I spoke to also said the entire film had been edited down by about ten minutes, with some of the day scenes cut.

Having scoured the net for any information on the film's final cut I have come up with naught. There are a growing number of fans for this film and even more people who are dying to see it. The question is why isn't there more of an outraged push from the fan sites to keep this original ending? Why is one of the scariest films of the decade being royally fucked over by the studios without protest?

*One of the hallmarks of Family Guy is the way it converts the strangest and most traumatic characters/events into banality.

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