Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts


Paranormal Activity: A One Time Only Affair

Posted on February 12, 2010 at 2:14 PM

Paranormal Activity was probably the biggest surprise of last year. There's a great story behind the making of that film and it finally hitting theaters, and the ingenious push to have horror fans vote to have it come to their city. It did it's job as a pop-culture phenomenon and, as it turns out, did it's job as a horror movie as well. Yet, popping it into my DVD player for the first time, soon realized that Paranormal Activity is simply not a movie you can watch a second time. It's built entirely around a first-time-viewing experience. Watching it again is like taking a bath a second time without draining the water from your previous one. Sure, the water is still there, as is the rubber ducky, but you aren't getting any additional benefits by trying to wash again because the water is all used up.


There are films that are built on "twists" where we know the outcome, what will happen and the big mystery behind it, yet still watch repeatedly. The reason why we can do that for those films, such as Psycho or Fight Club, is that the film offers more than just the reveal. We aren't simply sitting and waiting for that moment because there are other things along the way to entice and entertain us.


Paranormal Activity doesn't quite have that. Much of the film is rooted in waiting for something to happen, it happening, and you feeling that ominous sense of dread as it occurs. There are only a handful of actual "events" in the film, much of the rest are scenes with the actors trying to deliver lines or flesh our the atmosphere and that's about it. You want to forward past those moments until you can watch the Ouiji Board fire or the door slam. But doing so detracts from the exeperience entirely.


Now, is this a fault? Absolutely not. Paranormal Activity isn't your typical movie, director Oren Peli made damn sure of that. It's not trying to tell a story nor is it attempting to entertain you. It presents itself as camera footage spliced together. We start small, it grows until it finally ends. It's a matter of construct more than it is execution because it certainly executes itself very well. The reason we can't sit and enjoy it a second time is because it's a film constructed in a way that simply won't allow it. It's not a story. It's barely a plot. It's not full of character arcs and really only has one "twist" to the whole thing. Trying to watch it again often results in boredom because the entire structure is based on little "surprises" not "twists." A twist is something more geared towards a narrative structure, a surprise is when something unexpected simply happens and you move on past it. There's little buildup to it (it's a surprise, afterall) and often little to no consequences afterwards that would affect some kind of story it may be attempting.


Take for example slasher movies. A "twist" is finding out the history of Freddy and how he's connected to the children of the neighborhood. A "surprise" is Freddy suddenly leaping out form the closet. You'll always be enthralled by the twist, it's anticipation and presentation and the weight it holds. You won't be shocked by the surprise again and again because you've seen him jump out of the closet a dozen times already. A twist is also something that can be spoiled for you beforehand, and maybe hurt your enjoyment when you first see it. A surprise can never be spoiled even if people get detailed in describing it to you (it's usually visual), which is why the fist time watching Paranormal Activity is such an absolutely joy.


Yet, the entire film is one surprise after another and trying to rewatch it again is completely impossible. I started thinking "what other movies can you simply never watch again?" Obviously the horror genre would be the one most applicable here, but I really couldn't think of any other than the Blair Witch Project, but that still weaved a story and mystery to everything...although its "twist" is cheap and dumb.


That twist is the losing of the map, if you were wondering.


None of these concerns reflect poorly on the film or would every alter my review of it. It's a good movie to see once and that's it. There are some artsy high-end movies that I would say the same thing about because you say to yourself "alright, the story was told to me, that's enough. Usually they're Merchant-Ivory films, I've noticed. Ah well, at least I have that wonderful first-time experience.

Signing Off




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