31 December 2009

Crap year capped by a great movie

In 1999 the movie The Blair Witch Project came out fuelled by hyped generated largely via the internet courtesy of a clever and creative marketing campaign, turning the low budget “mockumentary” into the most profitable movie ever made in terms of how much it cost to make versus the mega bucks it raked in.

Several people found it scary, but many people criticised that the movie wasn’t as scary as the hype made it out to be. At the time I was working at a cinema and I too was caught up in the hype, and even though I was generally impressed with the film and found it scary to a certain degree, I wouldn’t rank it as the scariest movie I’ve ever seen.

However, a decade later, upon seeing Paranormal Activity, I came to realise perhaps why I wasn’t as scared out of my mind as I should’ve been. Blair Witch was set in a wide open forest, and although it had its fair share of scares, like the scenes in the tent, it was somewhat diminished by its outdoor setting, and a lot of what was supposed to scare you was mainly the psychological state of the characters and how they reacted to strange things that began to occur.

We see them filming stuff that was left behind for them to find that freak them out, and we see them running away from something menacing. Although those things are scary to a certain degree, a lot of people sometimes tend to overrate the psychological scares, praising it as way scarier than actually seeing the real thing. Although that is true, you have to at least see something, which Blair Witch doesn’t offer really. The opposite end of the spectrum, seeing the blood and the phantoms in all their glory, is also not scary, and that’s why I appreciate that Paranormal Activity situates itself in the sweet, chewy centre, showing something while showing nothing at all.

I’m kind of surprised that nobody thought of this idea earlier, and that it took someone exactly ten years after Blair Witch to come up with it. A guy called Micah lives in a nice house with his girlfriend Kate, who has a history of being visited upon by beings from the spirit realm, and Micah takes it upon himself to discover how true her claims are by having a video camera film them while they sleep, to see if anything happens.

And therein lies the genius of the setup: spooky things happen in the enclosed environment of a house, a much scarier proposition than in a big forest, which makes this movie much creepier than The Blair Witch Project. So there are no discovering of rocks outside a tent or finding someone’s ear or weird symbols hanging all over the place. We see doors moving, sheets moving and… I don’t want to spoil it by saying any more than that in case you haven’t seen it.

And don’t be fooled into thinking you can catch it on DVD because it’s all video camera footage anyway. Paradoxically, the best place to watch this movie is on the big screen in a cinema filled with willing participates as that just adds to the atmosphere and it’s fun to hear the people around you freaking out as everyone sits watching the screen in absolute bladder bursting suspense as to what’s going to happen next to this poor couple. I literally felt the hairs on my neck stand up with each scare and giggled along with the audience each time a new scene started showing the couple sleeping in bed moments before something happens.

This didn’t feel like a movie as much as it felt like an experience, something that gets you truly excited about going to the movies and getting truly caught up in what’s happening on the screen and leaving the cinema feeling that you’ve watched something really special. For a long time I was becoming jaded with the films that has been coming out, especially this past decade where I can’t think of any movie that has really stood out for me in the way that a film like The Matrix stood out for me (again) ten years ago in 1999 with its innovation and great ideas.

On the same day I watched Paranormal Activity I also saw the movie Invictus, and although I enjoyed watching it considering how relevant it is to me as a South African, the whole time I felt like I was watching Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon instead of Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar. That kind of thing takes you out of the experience.

In contrast, Paranormal Activity had no stars, which is why I could so immerse myself in the fictional tale. If I had my way, I would want all films to star excellent actors who are unknowns instead of film stars who I can’t help recognise as film stars, thus taking me out of the experience. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but not often.

Of the films that attracted my attention this year, Paranormal Activity is the best, followed a close second by District 9. But within the genre film category, Paranormal Activity might very well be my favourite film of this decade, right on the eve of the next decade, which I hope will bring us more films that truly captures the imagination with its innovation and sheer passion.

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