Monday, January 18, 2010

Based on a true story (because it's a true story that there was a movie made with the exact premise you're about to see)

Ever pull over for lunch at one of those suburban diners with less character than a Michael Bay movie? You know the type. Neon sign hanging over the awning, mismatched furniture inside, a menu so lazy it can’t even spellcheck ‘mozzarella’ or list the choice in salad dressings? You’re expecting Jamie the waitress to bring you a spotty spoon with soup-from-a-can special and paper-thin cheeseburger straight out of a freezer chest. If you’re lucky.
Then something strange happens. The chicken noodle is smooth and filled with actual meat from a once living bird. Your fries are crispy enough and the burger drips with genuine juice. Sure, the Diet Coke is flat, coleslaw soggy, and Jamie seems to get lost in a vortex during her cigarette break, but overall, you’re pleased enough with your experience and feel a tad guilty for being such a quick judge of cuisine character.
Such was my recent experience with Paranormal Entity--yes, that’s not a misprint--the latest offering from The Asylum, the studio that brought you such classy and timely direct-to-DVD titles as Transmorphers, Snakes On a Train, and The Day the Earth Stopped. Having never seen these or any of the two dozen other titles, I assumed that all were speedy cash-ins primarily designed to trick those movie buyers without finely honed reading skills or 20/20 vision. For some of their films, that may indeed be the case, but I was pretty shocked to discover that Paranormal Entity, in the words of Hans Landa, is... not so terrible.
Quick Plot: Some all-too-familiar text informs us of the Finley family tragedy, something better left to the next 85 minutes of screentime to show. We then hear a frantic 911 call from big brother Tom (I think...note most character details will be shoddy as IMDB has yet to acknowledge this is a movie) telling the operator about the brutal attack on his sister Sam. It’s a creepy way to start a film, but a tad too self-spoilery as well.
Flash back a month when Tom buys some fancy camera equipment (you mean just like--Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer?) to document the ‘haunting’ of his kid sister. Along with their mother, the 19 year old Sam and early twentysomething Tom have spent the past year dealing with the sudden death of their father in a car accident. Some questionable advice inspired Mom to write letters to her late husband and in doing so, opened some sort of portal for an annoying and amorous--paranormal even--entity to slip through.

Much like some other found footage ghost story of 2009, Paranormal Entity is something of an experience in whether minimal effects and suggested evil can still scare an audience raised on 3D bloodshed and torture porn. Whether it works or not depends a good deal on the individual, just as The Blair Witch Project had little room for those with in-between opinions. 
Early scenes focus a tad too hard on mysterious phone calls and TV static, but later touches--such as the demon nastily stomping about in Daddy’s ashes and a jarring cut that sets off the final mayhem--do succeed in creating a disturbing atmosphere. The actual entity, though never fully identified, has a truly mean nature that makes you genuinely concerned for the innocent-enough object of its obsession.
Is this a great film? Goodness no. A good deal of the scares are predictable, while stretches of run time slog through Tom’s shaky cam investigations without the payoffs we’re hoping for. The script is a little less clever than its source of inspiration and the performances not quite as charming, but I quickly found myself invested in the fates of these characters. Like Paranormal Activity, Paranormal Entity creates an unseen villain whose steeply escalating fixation on a clueless young woman is eerily frightening. Viewers who felt let down by the final shots of Paranormal Activity may be more satisfied with the final chaotic moments of this harder R film (side note: I’m still trying to figure out where that original rating came from) while those who prefer a more suggestive ghost story will find it gratuitous. 
High Points
The choice to include the late Finley father adds a solid touch of sympathy for the family, particularly when we realize the ironic sadness that it’s the mother’s inability to let go of her husband that leads to her and kids’ eventual demise

Low Points
Considering the gimmick of its low budget, every post-production effect (such as the too-loud phone rings and TV static) stand out like the CGI recuts in the not-so-special edition releases of the original Star Wars trilogy
Unlike Paranormal Activity, where viewers quickly gain a clear map of the house due to some careful plotting and camera tours, it’s a challenge to navigate through the oddly door-heavy hallways of the Finley home. In a film so confined to one space, this is something of a problem.
Lessons Learned
Incubi have a soft spot for young women with minimalist taste in bedroom decoration and who prepare for bedtime at 3 in the afternoon

Always invest in a spill-proof urn following the cremation of a dear relation
As Cloverfield, Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity, and countless other films have taught, the dude holding the camera is inevitably a really big jerk
While I appreciated Paranormal Entity as a far stronger film than its reputation could possibly have suggested, I have a hard time deciding what kind of audience will actually enjoy it. Moviegoers who loathed Paranormal Activity will have the same problems with the minimalist Paranormal Entity, while those who long to marry and mate with Oren Peli’s juggernaut of an original will be offended by the very existence of this film. If, on the third hand, you’re like me--someone who liked without loving Paranormal Activity--then Paranormal Entity is certainly worth checking out, if only to see how a recycled concept fares in different hands. Whatever your thoughts, be sure to come back and share them. This film is, not surprisingly, receiving its share of verbal hatred, so I’m curious to hear if my expectations were simply so low that it passed by default, or if indeed this was a refreshingly okay little cheapie worth a free rental and hour fifteen minutes of your time.


  1. God, you could have said it was awful and I still would have wanted to see it just because it is what it is! For you to say it isn't all "that" bad, makes me want to see it even more than I did, which was a lot! Sadly.

  2. I was almost disappointed that it wasn't awful, because as we all know, I'll never not be happy after such pain. But yeah, Paranormal Entity is way better than could possibly be expected. I still think a lot of people would justifiably hate it, and the very idea of hijacking material for speedy ripoffs remains offensive, but I'll give credit to the uncredited filmmakers for giving me a much better 85 minutes than I could have possibly expected.

  3. This is a great review Emily - I loved your diner/cuisine analogy! Those Asylum DVDs are tricksy little buggers - I initially thought I'd be reading about Paranormal Activity when I saw that poster at the top of your post. Then I looked closer. Not sure if I'll ever see this one - but thanks to your review, I'll know to at least give it a chance if I do. ;o)

  4. You know, I have yet to see an Asylum flick, in spite of repeating "come oooooon, Baron, it's called TRANSMORPHERS! We NEED to see it!!!!" whenever going through the Netflix Instant offerings. When I was working at a video store, these movies didn't exist, and I feel all the poorer for it, because I woulda been ALL OVER THEM. Your review along with the vlog review at the Cinema Snob's site have convinced me I've gotta check this one out. Agreed with James on the diner analogy--well-played, miss!

  5. Thanks James and Kate! Some of those Asylum titles do get rather tempting: I Am Omega, Sunday School Musical, Death Racers. I guess that the studio itself doesn't strive to be anything it's not, but it's an interesting challenge for the actual filmmakers charged with the job. If either of you ever end up with ANY Asylum flick, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

    And Kate, I'll definitely check out Cinema Snob for a second opinion. The only way I even heard of Paranormal Entity was when a coworker came in last week and ranted about how awful "that Paranormal Activity" movie was. When I asked him a little more, he started talking about "the mother and sister" and we eventually figured out he watched this one instead. So don't feel too bamboozled, James. You clearly woudn't be the first to be fooled by the poster!

  6. That's fucking hysterical that someone watched Entity instead of Activity!

  7. Believe me Matt, it totally made my day. And week. And thus far, 2010.

  8. Hahah wow! this movie had me laughing the entire way through- because they just one upped everything that happened in PA. Like they had 6 cameras in this one- so the Demon could always be captured doing his shenanigans. And there was nudity- and an obvious and really creepy incestual relationship between the brother and sister- although only in his eyes I think! And instead of demon footprints in baby powder the demon just breaks the Dad's urn and walks in that! Classic.

    Props to you for finding some good in this- you truly are a fair reviewer!

  9. I totally forgot to mention the incestuous overtones! When my coworker was describing the film, I was convinced he was talking about Amityville II for that very reason. And yes, it would have been appropriate to nudge budding filmmaker Tom with a whisper of "she's just not that into you...because you're her brother. And a pain in the ass."

  10. As a former (1990s) video store employee/movie snob, I got a lot of amusement out of watching people think they were somehow magically renting the popular movie that was still in theaters (and therefore not available in stores, but people are stupid) because of all the opportunistic similarly-titled tapes that appeared. The best ones were the other Titanic movies that popped up and the ensuing customer rage. Also, thanks for alerting me to the related Asylum phenomenon.

  11. Wow, I kind of really want to see a mid-90s Titanic ripoff. The possibilities seem promising.

    And yes Wednesday, I had heard pretty awful things about Asylum, but now I'm kind of obsessed with witnessing some of their other offerings. Paranormal Entity was a huge surprise, but I have the feeling some of their other titles--like the Avatar companion, which I kind of HAVE to see--will be entertaining in a whole different way.

  12. So I had no idea I Am Omega was an Asylum title. Guess I'm not an Asylum virgin after all! Though still a little prudish as this is perhaps the only title of their's that I've seen. And you know what - it was nay bad! It wasn't particularly good - but it wasn't terrible. One or two really creepy moments and then lots of Kung-fu and a haggard looking Mark Dacascos ACTING!! with all his might. Could have been worse...

  13. The I Am Omega title is particularly funny, since The Last Man On Earth is already public domain and it seems like The Asylum could have just used that title had they really wanted. I kind of love the idea of minor creepiness combined with Kung Fu and the mightily haggard Dacoscos. I may just have to see this after all!