Dir. Oren Peli
Fright Level: 8/10
Scare Type: the fun house
Subgenre: Haunted house, possession, found tape.
Hype helps films initially but inevitably hurts them. I'm not sure which side wins out in the end, but its better to see most films cold. And this film has loads of hype. Initially bought only to be remade as a studio project, this film has all the buzz, a brilliant marketing and distributing scheme, and even some street cred; Steven Spielberg, who helped the film get released got inexplicably locked in his office when he tried to watch the film, and returned it in a garbage bag. There are a great deal of films that you should not see without reading about them first, but for the most part the less you know about a film the better and that is so true with this one. In fact don't even watch the lame trailer with the audience reactions. It doesn't do the film justice, relay the tone, and has some ginormous spoilers (I just realised that ginormous is accepted by my spell check; what'd ya know?)
This is definitely the biggest horror phenomenon since Blair Witch. But the two are worlds apart, and the initial draw is completely different. Blair Witch was huge because a portion of the audience thought, and was led to believe by a sci-fi channel documentary which was in some ways better than the film, the gag order on everyone involved, fake press reports, etc., that it was a true story; that the footage was real. A decade later and audiences aren't going to buy such a claim anymore, that this is actual footage, and after a decade of films purporting to be either actual events or based on actual events, all that ballyhoo is getting old anyway. We just want to be scared. This is film cunningly agrees.
This is a good old fashioned haunted house film, where the scares set up by well placed set piece, foreshadowing, and atmosphere. But the twist is that this is not a ghost story, rather Katie is being stalked by an old school, and I'm talking old school, demon. Peli did months of research into demonology and perhaps the realism (sic?) he gives to the eponymous activity is a big reason why the film works so well; the demon has its own paradigm and its always better to have your monster/evil limited in some way within such a framework. Her boyfriend Micah (pronounced Mee-ka), they've been engaged to be engaged for 3 years, is both wildly curious about this new found aspect of his girlfriend's life (its stalked her twice before), but also thinks if he can figure out what the demon wants he can make everything stop; that he can fix it.
One of the shortcomings of this film is that it gives lip service to the possible psychological explanations for the phenomena, shelves it, and then tries to bring it up again after its been dismissed. It doesn't spend too much time on the topic, but when it does, it feels out of place. Either go with the supernatural all the way, like Poltergeist, or keep us in the dark throughout like the Entity; that film being probably the most violent ghost story put to film yet, and while this film is not as dark, its probably the haunted house film to which its most similar.
The film's greatest strength is that this is a terrifying film yet its gimmick is a somewhat crooked static shot of an open door. I don't want to ruin any fun so I will only tell you that this film gets the most bang out of the tiniest of details; it was filmed essentially in the director's bedroom over a couple of weeks for cost of the camera and tape. There has been post-production work done in two, perhaps three places since it was bought at Slamdance and the ending allegedly changed, and only one was a bit of an indulgence. The rest is old fashioned creaking and shadows. One other studio change was that the film was shortened in order to be more "tight." I'm not sure that worked to its advantage. Its most compelling visual images would have been more effective had they been shown for a bit longer. You'll see what I mean.
This is also successful because its a genuinely funny film. Micah and Katie are an extremely believable couple and relatable and likable people. And they, Micah especially, react the way real people would react in such a situation: when faced with situations we can't comprehend or situations so awful we're not sure about our very survival we crack jokes as a defense mechanism. Aside from its ability to unsettle, this is quite a fun film, and its always great to get a crowd that's really wanting to get into a film (literally and metaphorically, its sold out everywhere). That said, the film's tone and structure build to a maddening finish, one that gave me the biggest visceral jolt from a film since the Winky's scene in Mulholland Dr. Both times it was like having the wind knocked out of me. The thing is, the rest of the film, other than its three great "punch-lines" is just setting up those punchlines. It's not consistently scary or disturbing, which in many ways is a nice change of pace. Different things scare different people differently, and for me this sort of "boo!" horror provides a jump and then a sort of self-conscious laugh (something the film does also, though I really wish the studio hadn't put the prologue and epilogue text up, that's just so 1999!). Paranormal Activity was just disturbing enough to keep me on edge for a little while after, but the films that scare me the most are films that are quite constant in their menacing tone, not deviating too much between their highs and lows. I think it's between Ju-On: The Grudge (the Japanese version) and The Ring (the American remake) as far as the scariest film of the decade (rec. and The Descent getting honorable mention). But this is very much toward the top of any such list.