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  Paranormal Activity

Starring: Micah Sloat, Katie Featherston, Michael Bayouth

Directed by: Oren Peli

Produced by: Jason Blum, Steven Schneider, Oren Peli

Written by: Oren Peli

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

     It’s tempting to call Paranormal Activity overhyped, but doing so might imply that there’s a good movie underneath said hype and it’s just tough to access in the current cultural climate. While the film is shaping up to become a low-budget box-office phenomenon in line with The Blair Witch Project, it doesn’t even approach the narrative quality of that cult-classic. Paranormal Activity represents amateur, cheap horror that constantly drags attention to the fact that it accomplishes its “scares” on a shoestring, rather than simply accomplishing the scares period.

     In fact, I’d assert that much of the favorable audience reaction is simply a response to effective Internet promotion conditioning people to like the movie. What they actually like, however, is the long-lost idea of communal movie-going embodied in the film’s distribution strategy: the ritualistic midnight showings and the word-of-mouth driven anticipation have culminated to make this a can’t miss “event.” Not even the most successful summer Blockbusters—take Transformers 2 for instance—have been able to capture this level of buzz among young people. In other words, the experience is dictating a blindly positive response to the content.

     For those cynics who don’t particularly enjoy standing in long lines of teenagers at late hours—not until this week could the movie be seen throughout the day—the mediocrity of Paranormal Activity is much more apparent. Unless one falls hook, line, and sinker for the premise and disregards larger structural flaws, it’s a tough movie to enjoy, much less get scared by. Speaking of the premise: something freaky is happening when live-in couple Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston) go to sleep in their suburban San Diego home. More specifically: spooky, unexplained noises. So, like everyone who can’t explain creaks in the floorboards, they run a video camera all night to see what’s going on (the whole movie is conveyed through this lens). The results are disturbing: their bedroom door opens and closes on its own, footprints appear on the floor, et cetera. So they enlist the help of a psychic (Michael Bayouth)—cameras still rolling nightly—to find out what paranormal phenomenon is taking place. They’re told a demon is stalking Katie, and it likely can’t be stopped.

     OK, clever enough. But I found it pretty hard to buy into Paranormal Activity because every time something spooky happened, I couldn’t stop thinking about how the effect was achieved. When the door opened and closed, I pictured the grip on the other side, smiling at the idea of how scary it would be for viewers.  Don’t even get me started on where my imagination went during a scene in which Katie is inexplicably dragged across the room. (If you can e-mail me why the technical process involved reminded me of a certain “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” character, you get a cookie.) For a while, I considered the idea that this could be a result of the movie’s low-budget reputation (it was shot on DV for $15,000), which somehow brought my attention to process-related issues. But if this were true, then wouldn’t I be just as skeptical of big-budget horror and its equally prominent creature CGI?

     The real reason the filmmaking process is so apparent is because it’s more interesting than the characters themselves. Micah and Katie may seem like real people, yes, and they’re convincingly portrayed by actors Sloat and Featherston. But the viewer has no reason to care about them; they’re bumbling 20-something idiots who should just as well be tortured by the invisible demon in the movie. Without the viewer’s emotional investment, there’s nothing scary about what happens to these characters. One feels removed from the action, and hence the external process becomes the level on which one relates. The story of an independent filmmaker who shoots a hit movie on consumer cameras for $15,000 (his name is Oren Peli) is far more empathetic and interesting—at least to me—than character invented to be the ploy of cheap scares in his movie.

     Of course, just because I’m fascinated by Peli’s newfound commercial success—it’s the type of thing that could only happen in Hollywood—doesn’t mean I think he has made a good movie. Beyond the lack of scares stemming from unsympathetic characters, Paranormal Activity is one of the most annoyingly structured and edited films in recent memory. The first act—the calm before the storm for the characters—is painfully boring and runs way too long. I respect the concept of building suspense as much as the next guy, but this doesn’t work when the viewer knows exactly where the film is going. OK, maybe the “demon” idea hasn’t been introduced yet, but one can infer that the cause of the paranormal activity is something like this. Then, once the film begins to use long stretches of Micah’s nighttime security video, it only becomes more irritating because of Peli’s liberal use of fades in and out. Come the twentieth time the transition is employed, one wonders if the movie’s style intends to become an obnoxious parody of itself.

     For all its flaws, however, Paranormal Activity has a few interesting intrinsic things to say about modern media consumption. The film is not only edited together, but also uses a surround sound mix of ambient noise signaling doom before each of the scares. This implies, without question, that in the mirror world where Micah and Katie exist, the movie is an actual release being shown to the public, not a “found tape” ala Cloverfield. Therefore, audiences in this mirror world are paying to watch a film that promises to show real people get, at the very least, traumatized by a demon. (For the sake of this review remaining spoiler free, I’ll leave it at that.)  Whether the filmmakers intended to make this statement or not, it says a lot about the modern media climate and the way that, in such an emotionally distant world, we’re troublingly aroused by perceived intimacy and realism, even in the most horrifying of situations. While this subtle commentary may not lead to any direct “gotcha!” moments, it offers far scarier ideas than anything plot-oriented in Paranormal Activity.

     However, recognizing what the movie gets right in terms of media consumption also makes one realize what it overlooks. This relates to one of the movie’s largest contrivances. Early on in the movie, Micah’s narcissistic camera tendencies are established: he’s obsessed with shooting everything and celebrates when he finds something potentially paranormal in the footage. Even at the most chaotic moments, he keeps the camera rolling, much to the chagrin (and even downright fury) of his girlfriend. And yet, as Micah and Katie desperately seek answers when fearing for their lives—the “expert” their psychic refers is conveniently out-of-town—Micah never once thinks to put his footage on YouTube. Not even when they find certain hints about the demon online, clearly establishing there are Internet resources out there for this type of haunting. To which I write: you’ve got to be kidding me! While I understand that the movie’s strategy of keeping things in the house works to support its scare tactics, the absence of even a passing reference to YouTube is just too big an oversight to believe. Not to mention, the social commentary that could have been achieved in one scene of Micah and Katie interpreting the YouTube community’s response could have packed more substance than the entire rest of the movie. It would have been a logical place to take the movie for any filmmaker thinking outside the box, but Peli is unfortunately stuck in horror conventions, however “indie” his work may be.

     Of course, as is the case with most horror pictures, there’s a laundry list of other contrivances in Paranormal Activity. But this wouldn’t matter if there were more to the movie. Had it had further probed into media consumption, I would be able to recommend the movie based on its thought-process alone. Had the scare-construction been less derivative of The Blair Witch and other grassroots horror films, I would be able to recommend the movie for its style. Had the protagonists been more compellingly written, embodying even half the humanity of the strong-willed and similarly doomed women of The Descent, I would be able to recommend the movie for both its sympathetic characters and the ensuing fear for them. But, alas, Paranormal Activity is an emperor with no clothes – a cultural phenomenon about a scary movie, but not a scary movie itself. While it boasts a few engaging characteristics and should be celebrated for renewing interest in seeing and supporting movies as a community (vital to the sustenance of the art-form as a whole), there’s really nothing special about the picture. And that’s a damn shame.


-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 10.14.2009

Screened on: the eve of 10.4.2009 at Midnight at the AMC Mission Valley 20 in San Diego, CA.


Paranormal Activity is rated R and runs 99 minutes.

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