October 22, 2009

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Paranormal Activity (R)
A couple is terrorized by a spooky, malevolent Something in Paranormal Activity, a nicely chill-inducing horror film.

And, frankly, stop reading now if you’ve already decided to see this movie. I’ll try not to spoil, but the less you know going in to this creepfest the more fun you’ll have. But for those who need some convincing…

Katie (Katie Featherson) and Micah (Micah Sloat) are a mildly goofy couple living in a pretty, modern home in southern California. Like all couples, they have their issues — Micah is a bit immature, Katie is a little testy, they seem of mixed opinions on whether they are headed to marriage. Oh, yes, and Katie might also be cursed by a demon.

Hey, we all have flaws.

Katie says this thing — demon, she decides, after a psychic (Mark Fredrichs) tells her it is definitely too evil to be a ghost — has appeared at the side of her bed (in the form of a dark shadow) and created scary mischief since she was 8 years old. Now, it’s happening again. Strange noises, flickering lights, things out of place. Micah, not completely convinced that the cause is supernatural, buys a camera (that looks expensive, Katie says the first time it captures her coming into their house) and decides to set it up at night to film the goings-on. At first, there are strange grumblings, the bedroom door closes slightly and then opens again. But soon the happenings become more dramatic — heavy footsteps are heard on the stairs near the couple’s bedroom door. Lights turn on ominously following the path someone would take down the hall to their bedroom. Frightening shadows appear.

Yeah, yeah, you can cry Blair Witch at all the “home camera” work and the “regular people.” But considering that the alternative seems to be an unscary grab-bag of Korean movie knock-offs and ho-hum remakes of 1970s franchises, I’ll take this kind of low-budget mock-reality any day.

The movie is at its best when all the creepiness could be anything — the house, neighbor kids, a mouse. As noises and “hey, I didn’t leave my keys here” moments begin to form the shape of Something, you have to decide to buy into what the movie is selling, namely the possibility of “paranormal activity.” Buy in and you’re rewarded with a movie that, delightfully, doesn’t fall apart as things get stranger.

I read somewhere that the original plan was to remake this indie into a big-budget star vehicle and only show the original as part of a DVD package of extras, but I’m glad that (at least so far) there is no Hilary Swank or Edward Norton version waiting to lame up the good ideas that went into this cheapie version. I can’t think of a pair of actors who would have pulled off the ordinariness of the young couple as well as these unknown actors did. They are perfect — with it but also prone to occasional nonsense, nitpicky and argumentative with each other. Most of the movie is just them. A good chunk of the movie features them sleeping, waking up at the last moment to react to whatever. That they can make this work and seem natural is key to the success of the film.

It’s also nice that the studio didn’t try to Hollywood up the film by adding music, implausibly good lighting or more flattering shots of the actors. (I would imagine possible demon possession makes you look awful in just the way that Katie and Micah eventually do but no big-name star would ever allow.)

Another Saw will be shoved at you for Halloween, promising ironic gore in dank locales. But if you really want a good haunting, skip the stage blood and the ridiculous methods of execution and go straight for the everyday couple screaming in the dark. A-

Rated R for language. Written and directed by Oren Peli, Paranormal Activity is an hour and 39 minutes long and is distributed by Paramount Pictures.