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Critic's Notebook

What you don't see will scare you

‘Paranormal Activity,’ thankfully, has the guts to skip the gore and give us a good ghost story

Paranormal Activity (AP Photo/Paramount)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / October 30, 2009

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To this critic, the most entertaining aspect to “Paranormal Activity’’ are the screams of rage coming from horror-movie aficionados at websites like the Internet Movie Database. They thunder: Why is this movie a hit? and Nothing happens! and (most damning of all) There’s no gore! One incensed commenter compares the movie to last year’s “Mirrors,’’ a film in which a young woman graphically tears off her own jaw, and asks, more or less, where’s the beef?

Where you can’t see it, son - that’s why it’s scary. More than a work of lasting art or even craft, “Paranormal Activity’’ is an inspired idea, and not a very original one at that. It’s also a perfect example of the horror genre’s penchant for resetting itself back to zero every eight years or so. We’ve seen this kind of no-budget phenomenon ever since the breakdown of the Hollywood studio system in the 1960s, with a wave of grindhouse B-movies like “Two Thousand Maniacs!’’ (1964) and “Night of the Living Dead’’ (1968) leading into the original “Last House on the Left’’ (1972) and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre’’ (1974). When “Halloween’’ came along in 1978, it mainstreamed the grindhouse and-then-there-were-none genre and sold it to teenagers like processed cheese; we’re still living with the aftershocks.

The difference is that back then mainstream horror movies were comparatively bloodless, so the innovators were culturally disreputable films that delivered the explicit goods. In 2009, by comparison, “Saw VI’’ is the norm and computer-enhanced gore sequences are the expectation of every red-blooded teen. A movie that withholds, that asks audiences to bring their own imaginations - well, that’s revolutionary. And that’s why “Paranormal Activity’’ made twice as much money as “Saw VI’’ last weekend.

If you haven’t seen “Paranormal,’’ it’s important to know one thing: You could have made it but you didn’t. Told from the point of view of the consumer video camera just purchased by young couple Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherstone), Oren Peli’s $15,000 movie pretends to document a modern-day haunting. The couple are young and indistinct, attractive but average; they bicker and argue like every couple everywhere. Of course they’re boring: They’re you.

Katie has been hearing strange noises; Micah intends to leave the video camera running all night in their bedroom. “Paranormal Activity’’ is just that, then: black-and-white footage of the couple sleeping, the camcorder-clock fast-forwarding past a whole lot of nothing until suddenly . . . something.

The genius of the film - its only genius, really - is the way writer/director Peli builds the narrative over several weeks of the couple’s life, from a door moving two inches at 2 a.m. to much more major phenomena, while still showing us essentially nothing. Is this scary? Even if you haven’t had the experience of waking up in the middle of the night sensing that someone or something’s in your house, hell, yes, it’s scary. “Paranormal Activity’’ is a blunt, base-level experience that scrapes the ghost-story genre down to its lowest common denominator, then asks us to fill in the gaps. If you’re used to horror movies doing the visualizing for you, of course your muscles will be out of shape.

“Paranormal’’ is far from the first horror flick told strictly via a character’s camcorder. “The Blair Witch Project’’ broke the barrier 10 years ago, and Hollywood has been playing catch-up ever since, from the monster-stomping fun of “Cloverfield’’ (2008) to the viral frights of the 2007 Spanish film “[Rec]’’ and its 2008 US remake “Quarantine.’’ POV-horror is a meme, a full-blown subgenre, the cash-starved moviemaker’s best friend, but it comes with its own pitfalls. For one thing, the characters have to carry the damn video camera everywhere, even when it makes no sense. For another, re-creating “real life’’ means a lot of dull bits, and like Alfred Hitchcock said, what’s drama but life with the dull bits cut out?

And yet “Paranormal’’ has become a $70 million hit, only partly abetted by a brilliant marketing campaign that makes it seem as if we’ve demanded the movie ourselves. There’s an audience for it, but which audience is that? Not the hardcore horror crowd but a broader mix of younger teens - the same group that bought into “The Blair Witch Project’’ because, omigod, they thought it really happened - and older audiences relieved to be scared without getting a faceful of organs.

A colleague of mine went to “Paranormal Activity’’ and couldn’t even look at the coming attractions with their promised eviscerations. But she enjoyed the main feature for what it was: a good, scalp-prickling campfire story.

Like any campfire story, this one ends with a “boo!’’ and a sense of mild disappointment. Is that all? Yes, that’s all, but weren’t you creeped out? The finale is actually just a concession to the notion that movies have to end at all. The reason “Paranormal Activity’’ is a success and the reason it matters - why Oren Peli has either reset the genre back to zero again or broken it in two - is because it favors suspense over horror, the long, nerve-racking buildup over the reveal. Let the moviegoers who’ve seen everything and still want more complain all they want. More of us than you’d think are happy to be kept waiting in the dark.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

Related

'Paranormal Activity''Paranormal Activity'
2.0 Stars  This movie finds mild unease and shocks in an underfurnished home. Even at 85 minutes, it contains maybe 50 minutes that scare.

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