Ten years ago, a micro-budgeted, mockumentary horror film found a special alchemy of filmmaking and marketing, and became a box office sensation. That movie, of course, was The Blair Witch Project. In the long run, it divided audiences sharply, between those frightened speechless and those bored stiff. The case can certainly be made that the film was hyped outside of its natural cult environment, and hence some inevitable mainstream backlash. But one of my treasured memories is attending opening night with a packed crowd, and witnessing more than a few primal traumas. That’s a rarity, these days.
So flash forward to today, and once again, a little horror mockumentary is hyped into extraordinary success. I attended was at the opening night of Paranormal Activity in Winnipeg, and was hugging myself with glee as the crowd went nuts with fear. Had I attended the midnight showing, I’m told I would have seen a young woman standing up, screaming, howling for all and sundry to find Jesus. Great stuff.
Is the film that frightening? Ah, what a question. That’s like asking if a comedy is that funny. Generally, the more that one insists a film is scary/funny, the less likely it is for anyone reading that comment to find it so. It is unlikely that those of us who generally have to get our scares vicariously will find the situation any different here. But the film is very well executed, with skillfully wrought frights that should work on anyone that they can still work on, if you see what I mean. I don’t really want to say much more. The less you know about the film, the better. Don’t even watch the trailer, if you can avoid doing so. Hit the thing as cold as possible. And the best way to experience Paranormal Activity, especially given the phenomenon it is turning out to be, is with a large, receptive audience.
I realize the recommendation I’ve given involves a bit of a gamble. An audience that has decided it isn’t going to be frightened will kill the movie dead. But right now, before the inevitable backlash sets in, the conditions are pretty ripe. My sense is that there is something along the lines of mass hysteria occurring in the current audiences. Everyone there is bound and determined to be frightened, and so the audience feeds on its own terror, pumping the emotion up through the stratosphere. In just about any other context, this crowd psychology is dangerous (think mob violence), but at a horror movie, the result is pure movie magic, the kind of group participation we hardly ever see anymore, and harkens back to earlier days, when cinema ruled over our collective imagination far more than it does today.
Let me say this: real cult enthusiasms are very rare in the day of the tentpole film and the multiplex theatre, and so should be treasured like a sighting of the bird of paradise when they appear.
And could we ask for a better Halloween treat? An original horror film, not a remake or a sequel, proving the effectiveness of old school scares – now that’s something special, and a damn sight more welcome than yet more tiresome blather from Jigsaw.