- Paranormal Activity
Directed by Oren Peli
Screenplay by Oren Peli
Katie – Katie Featherston
Micah – Micah Sloat
The Psychic – Mark Fredrichs
‘The Scariest Movie of the Year’ Is Meek at Best
This is the time of year when, in temperate climes, leaves riot with color, breezes take on the scent of decay, and all the cultures that celebrate All Hallows Eve prepare for the year’s first nod to the holiday season. Scary movies are a serious draw when temperatures drop and leaves start to fall—and since the only other horror film released this month has been the sixth movie in the Saw franchise (just get it over with already!), Paranormal Activity will certainly make bank at the box office this weekend. Unfortunately, it is not the kind of catharsis many look for in a horror movie, nor is it remotely as interesting as its predecessors in the home-video-horror genre. In fact, it’s downright disappointing.
When The Blair Witch Project released in 1999, half of audiences believed they were actually watching footage chronicling the last days of three student filmmakers. That film fell at precisely the correct moment in recent history for that kind of guerrilla filmmaking. Amateurish as it may have been, it preceded the communications technology with which we’re all inundated each day, each hour, each second. It seemed possible that the movie could be real because the marketing relied solely on spare, spooky trailers and an intriguingly vague website. Ten years later, Paranormal Activity tries to exploit the same shaky-cam, night-vision film—and fails.
Paranormal Activity follows a young San Diego couple (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) through a month in Fall 2006 in which they strive to capture the presence that’s haunting their suburban home. The premise is simple: grad student Katie has sensed a supernatural force around her since the age of eight, and boyfriend Micah, a day trader who looks and acts like a frat boy, takes the haunting personally and decides to try to capture it with a video camera. Camera phones, the social media of Twitter and Facebook, and easy access to the kind of cinematic technology that used to be found only in Hollywood and college classrooms, have seemingly compelled us all to keep the world informed of every aspect of our personal lives. So of course the film industry wants to capitalize on the overshare.
The film falls short by arranging a regrettably thin layer of spooky occurrences beneath a thicker deposit of badly acted exposition and obnoxious characters. The couple and all secondary characters are total unknowns, which fits with the idea that audiences are privy to the lives of everyday citizens. The problem lies in the movie’s inability to create believable tension. The night-vision camera, which Micah sets up in their bedroom, captures one paranormal happening after another, but the tension isn’t enough to keep the plot moving. In Blair Witch, the characters began to use their cameras as buffers between themselves and the horror confronting them nightly; in that film the behavior makes perfect sense. You try to escape what you can’t believe or categorize. Paranormal Activity’s Micah, however, is simply the ultimate narcissist. He says multiple times that no one messes with his girlfriend and his house and gets away with it. He treats the subject with an appropriate amount of disdain and disbelief, borrowing a Ouija board and regarding the psychic Katie calls with utter contempt. As things progress he gradually becomes a believer while Katie descends into mentally unstable territory.
The movie touches briefly on theology—according to the resident psychic, the malevolent force responsible for slamming doors and amphibian nighttime footprints is no ghost, but an angry demon. The film only provides the audience with a fleeting nod to evil forces whose mythology should be utterly terrifying. Micah finds an article online telling the story of a “woman from the 60s” whose haunting bears a striking resemblance to Katie’s, but not enough information is conveyed to create adequate apprehension. There are a few genuinely spooky moments and one particularly jarring instant (which for some reason the filmmakers included in the trailer). But ultimately the film never lives up to the kind of tension it’s supposed to create, and the end is a cringing nod to every other movie in this subgenre.
The marketing campaign for this film is pure genius; the internet has been abuzz with reviews touting it as the scariest movie of the year. Frankly (and luckily for the filmmakers), 2009 has been a meager year in the realm of horror. The filmmakers strove to capitalize on the phenomenon created by The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield. Unfortunately, although the dollars will undoubtedly roll in for all involved, this movie fails to live up to its more worthy predecessors. For a good home-movie scare this Halloween, rent the utterly terrifying [REC] or its American remake, Quarantine. Watch Blair Witch again (at the very least, its foreboding Maryland woods set the scene for autumn). Although Paranormal Activity may tweak some viewers’ nerves, don’t go into it hoping for the most terrifying movie you’ve ever seen, lest you leave feeling duped..