Posts Tagged ‘oren peli’

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In recent years, Oren Peli has gone from the promising young director of the original Paranormal Activity to a veritable “horror mogul,” with his name attached (albeit as a producer) to projects as varied as Rob Zombie’s Lords Of Salem, Barry Levinson’s The Bay,  and the blockbuster Insidious series. And yet, for all his newfound clout, his sophomore directorial effort, Area 51, has been sitting around, unreleased, since filming on it wrapped in 2009.

You’d figure there must be a good reason for that, of course (and there is), but the funny thing is that, just when everybody finally forgot about this thing, it quietly (hell, silently, even) made its way onto various “home viewing platforms” (including Netflix, which is how I caught it — perhaps worth noting is the fact that it’s not, to the best of my knowledge, available on either Blu-ray or DVD yet) just a few months ago. So now, for better or for worse, we can all finally see this flick for ourselves and theorize as to why it was allowed to get dusty in the corner for all these years. Ironically, though,  for a movie based around the conceit of four conspiracy-obsessed twenty-somethings discovering the “truth” about one of the government’s best-kept secrets, the  simple fact is that no mysterious cabal was preventing the public from seeing this  — it just isn’t very good, and the studio obviously knew they had a lemon on their hands.

Come to think of it, the whole of Area 51 is so listless, dull, and tread-worn that I wouldn’t be too surprised if it was none other than Peli himself who fought hardest to ensure that it never saw the light of day. But who knows? Maybe that’s just a crazy conspiracy theory.

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Here’s our set-up : three dudes with a camcorder (Reid Warner, Darrin Bragg, and Ben Rovner — all of whom are (yawn!) supposedly “playing themselves”) are filming an on-the-fly documentary centered around them boozing, carousing, and generally acting like the assholes they so clearly and obviously are. Then they get bored with that, add a token female to their posse (Jelena Nik), and decide they’re going to bust into Area 51 to find out what the government’s been keeping under lock and key at the supposed site of history’s most famous supposed flying saucer crash once and for all. They do this by busting into the home of a guy who works at the base and procuring an “all-access” card key, and once inside, despite not being in military uniform or anything of the sort, they seem free to go about their business more or less unmolested.

In fairness to Peli and his largely talent-free cast, there are a small handful of “oh, shit, I think I hear footsteps!” moments, but on the whole the ease with which this parade of douchebags is able to navigate around the building without getting caught is pretty remarkable — unless, of course, there really is nothing of interest to find there. Which is certainly the case for the first 45-odd-minutes of their exploration/B-and-E job.

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Okay, yeah, sooner or later they really do find some shit they’re not supposed to, but I’m sorry — a few floating rocks are in no way gonna save this flick by that point. Seriously, Area 51 almost dares you to remain interested in it, and while we do — eventually — get to some “good stuff,” it’s way too little way too late, the movie’s already lost that just-mentioned dare,  and no way are you going to get suckered back in for about 15-20 minutes of semi-involving stuff before the credits roll. Unless, I suppose, you’re a real glutton for punishment, a real imbecile, or both.

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On the positive front, Peli and co-screenwriter Christopher Denham do work in some appearances by real-life people who purportedly claim to have some sort of involvement with the “actual” Area 51 “phenomenon,” and when you combine that fact with the genuinely shaky use of “shaky-cam” here, it gives the project a reasonably authentic “documentary” feel — but so what? Even if this somehow was  the “real deal,” it would still be slow-paced, boring, and flatter than Keira Knightley’s chest.

What’s hiding at Area 51? Nothing interesting.

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Some folks maintain that the “found footage” horror subgenre got started in earnest with The Blair Witch Project. Others insist that it was really Cloverfield that got the ball rolling in any kind of sustained fashion. And the truly smart people, who know their horror history, credit Ruggero Deodato’s seminal Cannibal Holocaust with being well out front as far as all this goes and predating even Blair Witch  by a couple of decades.

Those people are right, of course — and the simple fact is that Cannibal Holocaust still remains, to this day, far and away the best “hand-held horror” ever made. Nothing really even comes close. But that’s not what we’re to talk about today, is it?

Nope. What we’re here to talk about is something we can actually all agree on. Let’s face it : no matter which of these pseudo-“real” films one considers the progenitor of the line, and no matter which of them one considers to be the “top dog” of the bunch, there’s no denying that the whole thing’s been done absolutely to death  by now. Honestly, people. Give it a fucking rest.

Unless you’re Barry Levinson. I’ll be honest : I have no idea what motivated the Oscar-winning director of Rain Man to throw his hat into this particular played-out ring, but in late 2012 he quietly unleashed (under the air-quote executive production of one-man-horror-industry-unto-himself Oren Peli) a truly grisly and unsettling little number called The Bay, which I just caught the other night on Netflix instant streaming, that shows that in the right hands, even the most cashed dime bag still has enough shake at the bottom and clinging to the sides to get you good and high in a pinch.

A forced metaphor? Perhaps, but it still applies : after all, The Bay feels like old hat from the start : we’ve tasted these wares before and had our fill. But there’s just enough here to remind us why we kinda liked these flicks in the first place.

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Anyway, the story goes that in 2009 the fictional town of Chesapeake Bay, Maryland — situated right on, apparently, the real Chesapeake Bay — was holding their annual 4th of July extravanganza when, outta the blue, everybody got sick. Then they started getting blisters and boils and other nasty sores. Then they started dying. And then slimy little aquatic crustaceans started crawling out of their skin. And sometimes those last two items were reversed.

In any case, if you’re suspecting “environmental thriller” here, you’d be right — but for a film that lays the responsibility for this mess on the greedy poultry-processing industry that’s dumping literally tons and tons of chicken shit into the titular Bay every year, it never feels preachy, and instead concerns itself more with amping up the suspense and , yes, even terror with every newly-unfolding plot revelation. First we think it’s some viral outbreak. Then we learn about a “small” nuclear plant leak and suspect radiation. Then we combine that with enough chicken excrement to choke the entire Atlantic and a desalination plant that isn’t doing too effective a job and learn about a tiny little parasitic isopod that’s been growing larger and more aggressive feeding off the irradiated bird turds and suddenly — well, the implications are as gross and unsettling as their pretty-goddamn-authentic-looking on-screen realization.

Simply put, The Bay ends up being a surprisingly effective little puke-a-thon even if, by rights, it doesn’t deserve to be.

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The no-name cast (so I won’t name them — it’s not like characterization was that high on Levinson’s priority list here, anyway, nor did it need to be for the film to work) all do unfiormly competent if unspectacular work, the “hey, that nasty government of ours covered the whole thing up — but it may have been too late to prevent it from spreading anyway” conclusion is well-executed if agonizingly predictable, and the story’s underlying, layered premise is just believable enough to keep you hooked. Nobody’s re-writing the book here by any means, but they’re relating it with enough style and flair to make it still seem both relevant and effective. Plus, the effects work is solid enough to provide the kind of “nasty good” we all enjoy.

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I’d be lying if I said The Bay came anywhere near to approaching “classic” status. But it’s more than enough to demonstrate what a capable chef can do with even the most tired leftovers.

If it’s Halloween, it must be Saw.

Or so the saying went for the better part part of, believe it or not, a decade. But the Saw series is, for the time being at least, over with, and the new Halloween horror franchise is, of course, Oren Peli’s surprisingly resilient Paranormal Activity. And why not? These things are relatively cheap to make, since no established stars are required (heck, any face you’d recognize from elsewhere would diminish the faux-reality effect these flicks are aiming for), special effects are limited to a few “big moments,” and the number of sets required are minimal, to say the least. The latest installment, Paranormal Activity 4, is expected to gross $31 million in its opening frame, and while that represents a fairly significant decline from the $52 million opening of part three last year, it’s still enough to secure first place at the box office and pretty much guarantee a green light for part five next year, given that this thing only cost a few million bucks to get “in the can,” as the saying goes.

As for how part four fares in comparison to previous entries in the series from a non-commercial standpoint, I’d say it’s certainly not as strong as two and three were, but still delivers the goods pretty well, and most importantly it actually moves the story forward by, well — moving the story forward, rather than embellishing upon our understanding of just what the hell is exactly going on by delving ever deeper into the past. And, as with last time around, Micah Sloat is nowhere in sight, so that’s a big plus, too.

After giving us some cursory flashback information to refresh our memories, the story gets rolling in the present day (well, okay, 2011), in the appropriately soul-dead suburban environs of Henderson, Nevada, where a bland upper-middle-class family is trying to figure out just what to make of their new neighbors across the street, a single mom (who we know to be Katie, played as always by Katie Featherston, from the previous films) and her creepy kid, Robbie ( Brady Allen —who we assume to be kidnapped baby Hunter, now grown up just a little bit). The “action,” as it were here, is transmitted via the conceit of several computer webcams, thus keeping the whole “hand-held horror” thing going, and the characters — standard teenage daughter Alex (Kathryn Newton), her standard horndog boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively), standard younger brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), and standard marriage-hanging-by-a-thread parents Holly (Alexondra Lee) and Daniel (Brian Boland) — are all, well, frighteningly standard (as if you couldn’t guess that much), but what the hell : they’re more here to serve a function than to actually be unique or at all memorable in their own right, and as far as that goes, they all acquit themselves just fine.

Look, let’s not kid ourselves — the directorial team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, veteran hold-overs from the last film, aren’t out to reinvent the wheel here, they’re just out to deliver the goods as we’ve come to expect them, and maybe provide at least one nice little plot twist to keep us on our toes and let  us that all know that we’re not as smart as we might think are, which is certainly the case here when it’s revealed that one of the key assumptions we’ve been making from the outset of the film is completely wrong. A few cheap jump-outta-yer-seat scares are, of course, a necessary ingredient in the mix, as well, and we get those, too, so there’s really nothing to complain about here.

Oh, sure, Paranormal Activity has become a formulaic, largely predictable thing at this point, but it’s a franchise now — what do you expect? Truth be told even the first one was never really as innovative as it presented itself as being. But if the formula keeps working, and the story keeps moving in at least a quasi-interesting direction, then count me as being one who’s happy to stick along for the ride. There’s nothing particularly exciting or groundbreaking about a Big Mac at this point, either, but every once in awhile, when you’re in just the right mood,  they hit the spot like nothing else.

Some things are tried and true because, goddamnit, they still work. Take a cast of unknown young-twenty-somethings, throw them into an unfamiliar, possibly haunted locale, give us enough information to grasp the basic set-up but be utterly dumbfounded by anything else that happens, concentrate a lot more on what’s unknown (and leave it that way for the most part, even when you show it) instead of what we do know, amp up the isolation and paranoia, and you could have the recipe for a pretty decent scare flick.

Oh, sure, it might suck if the director’s incompetent and the actors are so bad as to be completely unconvincing, and plenty of films following more or less this exact same blueprint have sucked, but if you know what you’re doing, there’s no reason an audience still can’t be entertained by this kind of thing.

Director Brad Parker, the guy behind the newly-released Chernobyl Diaries (working from a script by Paranormal Activity creator Oren Peli and Shane and Carey VanDyke), knows what he’s doing. His film employs many of the “hand-held” visual trappings of the like find in films from The Blair Witch Project to Cloverfield to Quarantine to Apollo 13, but wisely does away with the tired plot contrivance of having to explicitly point out that this is a “home movie” or “found footage” of some sort. He just apes the look to give the unsettling locale of an abandoned town within spitting distance of the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant an even more alien, ominous feeling — and while it may be a cheap trick, it does the job.

The script itself is pretty solid, too — it doesn’t dwell much on explanations, but ratchets up the tension at a precise, well-orchestrated rate. Each character, from the American asshole-older-brother-living-in-Kiev-for-reasons-never-explained to his heart-of-gold younger brother to younger brother’s girlfriend to the young couple joining the “extreme tourism” journey into the radioactive (but apparently sort of safe in certain places if you don’t hang around for too long) post-meltdown wasteland are given just enough personality to make them interesting and semi-involving without toying with the standard,  by-now-archetypal images of folks in these kinds of films too much, and the perils they quickly face are plausible enough to maintain some semblance of “holy shit I can sort of see this happening” without being pedestrian enough to veer into the territory of actual narrative plausibility. In essence, you can believe their predicament without being able to directly relate to it.

One of the most common criticisms I’ve seen online so far of Chernobyl Diaries is that it’s totally beyond the pale to somehow suggest that people would be stupid enough to pay good money to tour an abandoned, radioactive ghost town. On paper, that seems like a reasonable point. For all of about one second, until you remember that there are idiots out there willing to fork over their hard-earned cash to bungee jump off cliffs and zip-line across fucking canyons. One person’s idiocy is another person’s adventure, after all, and if there were tours like this actually offered, ya know what? Just about every day there would probably at least a few folks foolhardy enough to go. So there’s that gripe out the window.

And without that, there’s really not much to dislike here. The Serbian and Hungarian filming locales utilized by Parker look an awful lot like any former town right next to the biggest nuclear disaster in history would look, the acting is all perfectly competent, the scares (even the cheap ones) are fun, the dialogue is consistent with what you or I would probably be saying under the same circumstances, the actions of the characters run the gamut from “that seems sensible” to “dear God, what the fuck are you thinking doing that?,” and the overall atmosphere is one of tight, accelerating foreboding and dread. It certainly doesn’t take any risks — hell, the characters even die in more or less exactly the order you would predict (although it does adhere to Joe Bob Briggs’ classic rule of good drive-in cinema, namely that it at least seems like anyone can die at any time) — and it doesn’t break any new ground, but since when did a horror film need to do those things to be good? If you just want a movie that does a good job of delivering exactly what it sets out to deliver, then you could do a whole lot worse than Chernobyl Diaries. It’s pretty standard stuff, but it’s fun standard stuff that should leave a smile on the face of the average genre fan, even if they can’t specifically remember any special reason why within a few hours of having seen it.

Don’t look now, but Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity series is on the verge of becoming the most successful horror franchise of all time.

Take a minute and absorb that before we move on. Not Halloween. Not Friday The 13th. Not A Nightmare On Elm Street. Not Scream. Not even Saw or Final Destination.

This series — which many people didn’t even expect to see so much as one sequel to, a sequel which many of us initially thought had Blair Witch 2 written all over it, is set to pass all of those other venerable horror staples in total box-office gross after only its third installment.

That’s impressive enough in and of itself, but even more impressive is the fact that, despite looking for all intents and purposes like a one-trick pony, the Paranormal Activity flicks actually are finding new and creative ways to keep the story going, namely by continuing to move further and further back into the past. I don’t know how long that can be kept up — and let’s face it, at some point we’ve gotta have an actual, proper sequel to the first one, so we can all find out just what the hell happened there, but for now going deeper into the origins of the demonic entity stalking the Katie n’ Kristi duo is proving to be immensely satisfying.

For Paranormal Activity 3, brought to us courtesy of the directorial team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (the same folks behind last year’s was-it-a-documentary-or-not Catfish — and truth be told, their involvement with this film and their expert use of faux-documentary techniques on display here leads me to believe more strongly than ever that their first film was, in fact, made-up bullshit) we’re all the way back to 1988, when our heroines were just young girls in suburban San Diego and the entity-or-whatever-it-is first shows up to start fucking with their lives.

Slowly building from seemingly harmless conversations with an invisible childhood friend the girls call “Toby,” then moving on to the usual bedsheets-moving-and-pots-and-pans-falling-off-the-rack that we’ve seen before (and bubbles in the kids’ bedroom aquarium are this movie’s version of part two’s pool cleaner) before events here actually ramp up into new territory (and the pacing here, while obviously deliberate, still manages to flow along quite nicely and naturally),  by the time we get to the final 15 minutes that are supposed to mess you up for life (they don’t, but hey, they are pretty good), even the most anti-Paranormal Activity horror fan will have to grudgingly admit to him or herself that hey, this is some pretty solid stuff.

The “homemade look” conceit this time comes to us by way of the mother Julie’s new live-in boyfriend, Dennis, who runs some kind of wedding video business out of his garage and sets up his equipment all over the house when weird shit starts happening, so we’re out of the HD computer-cam and 24-hour-security surveillance footage era here and firmly back in the nostalgic age of home movies.Several of the most effective sequences come to us courtesy of a VHS camcorder set up in the living room/dining room area that pans back and forth on top of a tripod with a timing device affixed to it. So this definitely has the feel of an old-school hand-held horror — of the sort that, you know, didn’t actually exist because this genre wasn’t really around back then, Cannibal Holocaust aside.

At the end of the day, though, it’s the plot revelations (which by the time they come will have you saying “shit, I shoulda seen that coming,” but you won’t have), rather than the (with apologies to Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon) nostalgia for an age that never existed that make Paranormal Activity 3 the most satisfying entry in the series to date. They also leave open the possibility of going even further back into the family’s history, although you gotta wonder what medium they’ll employ if they choose to do so — it seems that 8mm home movies of the 1970s/early 80s variety are about the only option left.

Oh well, my rear end will be in a theater seat to see the next one whichever direction they decide to take things, whether they end up delving deeper into the past or finally following up on the events of the first film. Like a lot of people in the die-hard horror community, I was completely underwhelmed by the first Paranormal Activity film and felt it was the most blatant example to date of “viral”  hype (of the studio-manufactured variety, which is even more annoying) trumping actual substance, but with each sequel I’m being won over more and more completely. And it doesn’t hurt that the perpetually-annoying Micah Sloat was nowhere to be found in this latest one.

And so ends our annual October Halloween horror-round up here at TFG. Next month I’ll be starting a new themed series that will end up looking an awful lot like this one. Stay tuned and all will be revealed within the next few days. Until then, I wish a Happy Halloween to one and all!

"Paranormal Activity 2" Movie Poster

So, the “phenomenon” is back, as you knew it would be. After Paramount raked in a bundle thanks largely to a phony, studio-orchestrated “grassroots” campaign that “demanded” widespread release of writer-director Oren Peli’s original Paranormal Activity, a sequel was inevitable — and just about exactly one year later, Paranormal Activity 2 is here. Boasting a budget of nearly three million bucks as opposed to the original’s $15,000, there’s no way this is going to make as exponential a profit as the first one, but it’s still going to earn the studio a very tidy sum, even if audiences are only 50% of what they were the last time around, which, based on how many people were in the theater when I saw it this afternoon, seems pretty likely.

Paramount even rolled out another phony-ass “viral” marketing campaign for this sequel — they couldn’t do the old “we’ll release this movie in every market that we get 1,000 requests for it in” again, but it’s more or less the same thing — if they get “enough” requests in a particular market (the exact amount isn’t specified), then it will open in that market “before” it goes nationwide.

Needless to say, every single major market supplied the requisite number of requests and the flick rolled out “early” — as in one night early, in a series on midnight shows on October 21st.

So, anyway, it’s out there in every megaplex now, and it’s on the whole a little less claustrophobic-feeling than the first ,a little less tense, a little more polished, a little more by-the-book — and, surprisingly, a little bit better, as well, in this critic’s view.

I wasn’t nearly as enamored with Peli’s original as most of the horror “community” — it wasn’t bad, by any means, but I really didn’t find it at all scary, and I honestly failed to see what all the buzz was about. It was okay, sure, but that’s about it.

The sequel, on the other hand, is — a little better than okay. Not a masterpiece by any means, but not a bad way to spend 90 minutes of your time and seven or eight bucks of your cash.

Our setting is sunny San Diego once again, but this time, instead of an unlikable, self-absorbed yuppie couple moving into a townhouse, we’ve got a slightly-less-self-absorbed, slightly-more-likable yuppie family living in the house they’ve always lived in.  The mom, the dad, and the teenage daughter (all portrayed by no-named actors) have just welcomed a new addition to the fold, a baby boy named Hunter. Within a year of little Hunter’s birth, though, shit starts going a little crazy around the house, and after what they believe to be a  violent break-in, they go ahead and install a video surveillance system all over the house. Rather than being presented (supposedly) through the point of view of the same exact camera throughout the flick, then, what we’ve got here is a hodgepodge assemblage of “footage” from the various security cameras, as well as the family’s home camcorders.

And while only the absolute dimmest bulb in the world would still be wondering “Holy shit, is this for real?” at this point, I’ll give the suits at Paramount credit for opening the movie with a great exploitation-style tag line — “Paramount Pictures would like to thank the surviving relatives of the persons involved for their agreement to participate in this film,” or somesuch. The cow’s long since left the barn, but they’re still trying to mikl it, bless ’em.

Notable by his absence here is the “creator” of Paranormal Activity himself, Oren Peli. He’s still listed as an air-quote co-producer, but the director’s chair this time around is seated under The Door in the Floor‘s Tod Williams, and the screenwriting duties are handled by veteran TV scribe Michael R. Perry. On the whole, injecting a bit of (admittedly uninspired) professionalism into this amateur-birthed franchise (as it now surely is) works, and there’s a definite sense that the adults have stepped in to take this thing in a more finished and sensible direction than the kids were capable of. This is most notable in how they’ve chosen to portray the lead characters — last time around you wanted both to be killed, this time you’d just as well see them survive. They’re not all that interesting or anything, to be sure, but they’re no less nauseous than the average family of corporate scumbags. Plus, there are little touches added in to give them a more “human” feel — this is the old man’s second marriage, his first wife died, the teenage daughter is his kid with said first wife, the new bundle of joy is his first with his much-younger second wife, things like that.

Plus, they’ve hit on a  concept that, while by no means original, certainly works — this time around, the ghost/spirit/demon/whatever-the-fuck is after the baby.

Now, what, you may ask, does any of this have to do with the previous film? Well, that’s where the next effective plot twist comes in, and I’m not gonna give it away. Suffice to say that the couple from the original Paranormal Activity is known to this bunch, it’s the same spook haunting them, and a seriously asshole move made by the dad in this flick is what sics the invisible monster onto the other folks from the other movie in the first place.

If you’re dying to find out what this rather simple, but ingenious, plot device is that ties the two pictures together, I’m sure there are plenty of “spoiler”-filled reviews out there on this great big internet of ours, but I’m not going to add this one to those ranks since seeing this particular plot twist unfold for yourself is one of the best things about this movie and, while there are fewer jump-in- (or out of) -your-seat moments in Paranormal Activity 2 than there were in the first, this major-league “damn, that’s a cool idea” moment more than makes up for it — and  the ending has the dad not only pay for what he’s done, but ties the two films together even more tightly and leaves open the possibility for yet another sequel.

All that being said, and even though I freely admit I liked this flick better than the first one,  I find myself hoping this is the end of the road for not only Paranormal Activity, but for the whole digital handheld/camcorder/POV/fake DIY  horror craze in general. Really, this idea’s been not just mined for all it’s worth thanks to movies like Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, Rec (and it’s Americanized remake, Quarantine) , Rec 2, and of course the original Paranormal Activity itself, the fact is that it’s been flat-out strip-mined down to nothingness. It was a novel enough idea to start with, I suppose, and serves as a useful plot gimmick for getting around one of the great dilemmas every horror screenwriter faces, namely “how do I explain all this shit?” (since with this particular genre you never really have to), but it’s beyond played-out at this point — and while Paranormal Activity 2 might do a little better job of it than some of the other films mentioned here, it by no means adds anything new to the proceedings. Simply put, the whole idea is beyond it’s sell-by date and went from feeling fresh and interesting to old and stale in no time flat — which is really rather fitting, I suppose, given that the  modern, instantaneous “information age” culture that gave birth to this new spin on horror has an attention span of about fifteen seconds and demands something new all the time. In a way, then, the “camcorder horror” subgenre is a victim of its own success, and has been done in by the very same culture of instant “information” (and instant gratification) that gave rise to it.

Whether that’s poetic, prophetic, or just plain the way things are today, I leave up to you to decide. But if the whole craze has gotta end, this wouldn’t be a bad note to end it on.

"Paranormal Activity" Movie Poster

"Paranormal Activity" Movie Poster

Ah, the silent tyranny of expectations. Yesterday, you host did a bit of theater-hopping at the Block E megaplex and took in both of this weekend’s big new horror releases,  the studio-engineered “viral” marketing sensation “Paranormal Activity,” and the largely-dreaded remake of “The Stepfather.” I found myself enjoying both and finding them more-than-worthy additions to our little monthlong Halloween countdown here, but didn’t rank them in the order that I expected, so let’s get started with “Paranormal Activity” and take a look at the “Blair Witch of the 21st century” before moving on to a flick that virtually everyone assumed would suck but doesn’t.

Let’s be honest here — at this point, “Paranormal Activity” — that is, the film itself — is essentially inseparable from its rather ingenious marketing campaign. Paramount has spent a whole lot of money making this look like a word-of-mouth, “because you demanded it”-type thing. In reality, while it looks like a whole new type of “internet phenomenon,” what we’ve got here is essentially a high-tech updating of Mishkin-esque 42nd street ad campaigns. It’s carnival-barking with the audience enlisted as the barkers, and you know, while seeing it for the sham it is, my hat’s still off to the folks behind it, because it follows in the grand exploitation tradition even if most people can’t see it, which is probably the best part of the trick. 1,000 demands will get this into your city? You could get 1,000 demands for just about anything these days, and the theaters were already booked in advance, with full knowledge that this “grassroots campaign” would work.

Which is not to say that first-time filmmaker Oren Peli’s little (at one point) indie horror hasn’t had a circuitous path to wide release. Completed around two years ago, it languished around a bit on the small festival circuit for quite awhile until Steven Spielberg (audible groan) started singing its praises and brought it to the attention of Hollywood execs, who threw a little bit of cash at Peli (not much, it must be said, and the total budget for the film is around $13,000) to reshoot some of the ending and got to work on coming up with a unique way of marketing the film, namely having us do a lot of their work for them. From the horror convention circuit to limited-release midnight shows to its incrementally- timed rollout expansion, this has all been planned.  But I digress.

What’s driving this studio-engineered “demand” is the promise of one of the scariest damn movies you’ll ever see. Why, everyone says so. It’s “Blair Witch” all over again — a tight little suspense shocker that’s so cheaply-made it could pass for a documentary. Some people can’t take it and have to leave the theater, it’s just too intense (so we’re told). Some people actually think it’s real (so we’re told). And it’s really harrowing stuff (so we’re told).

In truth, though, what we’ve got here is really just the latest in the DIY/YouTube-style horror genre that really got going with “Cloverfield” and continued with “REC.” and it’s later English-language reworking “Quarantine” and  then with George Romero’s criminally-underrated “Diary of the Dead,” the only qualitative difference being that this flick’s budget really is damn close to actual DIY levels.

So yes, it does feel authentic. And claustrophobic. And like it could really happen. And it is, in fact, pretty good. But about halfway through this little story of a young couple being haunted by an indefinable presence, I realized I had to divorce myself from the high expectations I had for it if I had any hope of enjoying it. Because it’s not, as the bloody-disgusting.com review quoted on the poster claims, one of the scariest movies ever made. It’s plenty scary, sure, but it’s not, as the kids would say, all that.

The setup is pleasingly simple — a young couple, Micah (played by Micah Sloat) and Katie (played by Katie Featherston) move into a new rental townhouse-type thing in San Diego. She’s an English major (who still says “unexplainable?” Please.), he’s a day trader. Her house burned down when she was a young child and she’s been followed by some type of malicious presence ever since. When things start going bump in the might in their new place, they decide to set up cameras all over the place, most prominently in their bedroom, and watch the footage the next day to say what happens while they’re asleep.

And that’s it. We never leave the confines of their house apart from a brief sene out at their swimming pool. The only other notable character included into the mix is a “ghost hunter”-type of guy who pays them a couple of visits. It’s really just the two of them, their place, and their uninvited guest. This minimalistic setup really works, and the conceit of having the actors play characters with their own names adds a further frisson of “everyday horror” to the proceedings. In fact, “everyday horror” is the entire modus operandi here. The fact that this film feels authentic is its greatest strength, and, in fact, it’s only real one.

It’s essentially a one-trick pony. But it’s a good enough trick to keep you glued to your seat for 90 minutes. Each successive scene ratchets up the fear factor a notch at a time. It builds to a shockingly satisfying climax that really explains nothing but feels “just right” nonetheless. But I have to admit that I’ve seen better ultra-low-budget, minimally-scripted films (a couple of which have been reviewed on this very blog — “Last House on Dead End Street” and “Combat Shock”).

All of which is not to knock what Peli has achieved here. It’s certainly remarkable enough in its own right. He and his collaborators can hold their heads high. “Paranormal Activity” is a well-crafted, minimalist flick that wrings as much fright as it can from its contents.

But its rather unique add campaign — remember, inseparable from the film itself — is also its undoing. It’s doing its job of getting what would otherwise be an otherwise unnoticed piece of backyard filmmaking (well, okay, indoor backyard filmmaking) plenty of attention “buzz” — but it’s also setting people up for a bit of disappointment by promising one of the scariest movies ever, and “Paranormal Activity” just plain isn’t. In true exploitation style, the promise is better than the payoff.

Time will tell how this flick is eventually judged, of course. “Blair Witch” started as a huge sensation, endured something of a backlash in ensuing years, and has recently been re-evaluated as a seminal horror movie after all, which it really is, warts and all. I don’t think “Paranormal Activity” will prove to be quite as groundbreaking — or even as groundbreaking as it seems right now. But in Peli’s defense, he didn’t set out to make some trailblazing cinematic phenomenon, he set out to make the best scare film he could with limited resources. And in that respect he succeeds quite admirably.