REVIEW: Paranormal Activity [2009]

“It was my inner child getting scared”

Here we are, a decade later, (well, actually eight years if you factor the 2007 original release date), and the fervor caused by The Blair Witch Project in 1999 has begun again, this time in the world of ghosts/demons. Oren Peli’s low budget thriller Paranormal Activity didn’t enrapture viewers at Slamdance enough to find a distribution deal, but after a viewing by Steven Spielberg, it has become one of the feel-good stories of Hollywood. Loving the simplicity, as I’m sure the potential profit margin too, ($11,000 budget turning into a current $60 million large), the prolific auteur requested a change to the ending to make it more palatable to audiences, trimmed off ten minutes, and gave it its shot at greatness. After an ingenious release tactic through college cities and the internet “demand it for your town” system, Peli’s little engine that could has become a phenomenon in wide release. But with all the hype, and all the audience testimonials, does it live up? Unfortunately for this viewer, the answer is no, not at all.

Back in ’99, I remember still being a little unsure about this Blair Witch thing. Was it real? Was it fake? The excitement was still in its infancy when my sister, cousin, and I went to a night screening at the Amherst Dipson, when we still thought it was kind of a creepy, dingy theatre house. So, the mood was set, the unexpected assumed, and genuine scares delivered. Whatever one may say about its replay value—heck, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it a second time—it was everything it promised to be and more that initial sit down. The final image is still one vividly recalled to mind if thought about. I desperately wanted a repeat of this; the time had come for a ghost story to be chilling in its minimalism and realism. Thinking back, though, there was a lot going against Paranormal Activity successfully achieving it. You know going in that it’s a dramatization; you’ve heard the stories, you’ve seen multiple first-person films come out in the past ten years, but you still hold on to the hope of being terrified. For some reason, however, the so-called build-up of tension just fell flat into uninteresting boredom. Until the final ten/fifteen minutes, half of which was Spielberg’s doing, (and a far cry better than the original ending, watched after I came home from the theatre), I will admit to being restless, waiting for something good to finally occur.

The big problem, I feel, is that so much of the creep factor is shown without a human presence. Unlike a film coming out soon, The Fourth Kind, or Blair Witch itself, this film has its shadow play, its baby powder footprints, and Ouija Board antics occurring without anyone there to react to it. What those other two films had in spades was an experience involving people we as an audience could relate to. We were given the tears, screams, and looks of fear and helplessness, allowing our empathy as human beings to kick in and start feeling those emotions ourselves. Everything that happens in Paranormal Activity does so for us to see, eliciting a smile or a “how did they film that” reaction from myself, and only reacted to by the characters of Katie and Micah the following day from watching video. There is something palpable and resonating about seeing true terror onscreen and relating to it, putting yourself into the situation and fearing what might happen next. Just watching a series of parlor tricks or loud noises off-screen leaves you wanting so much more.

Rather than terror, the reaction we see most is that of excitement and laughter. The demon causing all the fuss has been following Katie around for her entire life and therefore has much more meaning to her. Micah, on-the-other-hand, is just loving the idea that he can catch these phenomena on camera, maybe sell it to a youtube site or something. The guy is a day trader, seemingly to have an infinite amount of spare time as his wealth is increased while he plays amateur documentarian. He is enjoying the experience, trying to provoke the entity living with them for something cool to capture. There are no real stakes for him as he thinks it’s all just a joke—neat things happening, but nothing that will actually hurt his girlfriend of himself. Going against the suggestions of a psychic who came to visit, he doesn’t want a demonologist to help, he instead wants to communicate with the demon himself, in all respects inviting it to come into their world and enjoy complete control over them. So, in a genre of cinema where the impact is greatly influenced by empathizing with the people onscreen, instead of fear we start to feel Micah’s sarcasm and invincibility, effectively taking us out of the terror to wonder when a good scare will finally come.

I do believe both Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat do an admirable job of being realistic without falling into the amateur actor trap. They are playing themselves, leaving all sense of artifice out. The thought of them being “bad actors” never crossed my mind; I felt that they portrayed what they would feel and do if that situation presented itself to them. I do think that they revved up the emotion at the end, however, losing that happy-go-lucky sheen by adding an edge to their performances as stress sets in and things get personal. When the being in the house finally takes a physical interest in the characters, when it finally makes contact with their bodies and proves itself to be there despite being unseen, this film becomes something so much more intriguing. Why did they wait so long before adding those stakes and giving us something to fear? Maybe it’s just me, but lights turning on and off or doors slamming don’t elicit feelings of dread. Two parallel planes of existence overlapping and seeing people moved by an invisible force … now that is something my adrenaline kicks in for. It is just too bad that an intense ten minutes of supernatural simplicity can’t even begin to make up for the hour of laughable seen it all before scare tactics leading up to it.

Paranormal Activity 5/10 | ★ ★

[1] Katie (Katie Featherstone, left) and Micah (Micah Sloat, right) are a young couple who move into what seems like a typical suburban “starter” tract house and become increasingly disturbed by a presence that may or may not be demonic but is most active in Paranormal Activity.
[2] 3:08:26 AM; a scene from Paranormal Activity.


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