Title: Paranormal Activity
Year of Release: 2007
Date Viewed: October 20th, 2010
MPAA Rating: R
Audiences have seen it all. How else can you explain why horror films draw such rabid crowds on opening night only to fade into its own darkness in the bottom dusty shelves? Audiences crave to be thrilled. To have goosebumps on their bodies and the gift of being kept on the edge of their seats. They relish these feelings so much that it has become awfully hard to impress. Unlike other genres, you can't really get away with borrowing old ideas and presenting them in a new package. Drama and action fans take comfort in knowing what to expect. Horror is only effective when it's unpredictable. Movies that telegraph its scares can still be entertaining if you're watching with a group of smart-alec friends that enjoy pointing out the shortcomings.
That is why marketing plays such an important role in drawing interest to your scarefest. Too much ticket money has been spent on blind faith. Now only movies with strong positive word-of-mouth press have any hope of raking in box office dough. If the newspaper critics give it approval, then it's a sure guarantee.
No other movie was marketed better last year than Paranormal Activity, the low budget "home camera POV" film that released in limited markets and expanded via fan demand. Indie film buffs became curious due to rave reviews and were intrigued by video footage of test audiences sitting on the edge of their seats and screaming out loud. That is exactly the sort of thing horror fans want to see. Strong early feedback and the knowledge that they will experience something unlike they have ever seen before. That's what the marketing claims, so it must be true. Right?
Paranormal Activity baits you in with an unusual concept. But its scares are as uninspired as Michael Jordan's halftime speech in Space Jam. It is smart enough to realize that fear of the unknown is greater than the fear of the known. However, you can only test the audience's patience for so long until they grow restless, as was the case with me.
Like The Blair Witch Project and many others before it, Paranormal Activity tries to sell you on the idea that what you are about to see is real. A dedication message takes the place of a traditional prologue. The message thanks the family of the people documented in this movie and the local police department for their cooperation. The movie even names the characters after the actors that play them. Was that an extra selling technique or was the writer just feeling extra lazy that day?
The characters are Micah and his girlfriend Katie. They recently moved into a middle class neighborhood that will hopefully give Katie some much needed peace. She had been haunted by what she believes to be demonic spirits all of her life. Micah is more amused than concerned by her predicament and convinces her to let him buy a new video camera to try capturing some of this paranormal activity on film and share it with the world.
The entire movie is seen through the camera's perspective. It is placed on their bedroom dresser and set up to record all night while the couple sleeps. Each following morning, Micah and Katie review the footage and take note of any unusual happenings. The events start off minor. A loud crashing noise is heard from downstairs. The door slams shut on its own. These events are unusual but not outside of rational reasoning. But then things start to get less and less explainable; such as how someone could sneak past their night security system, leave footprints on a pile of salt and vanish without any other trace. Is the couple's hired psychic just another cold reading nutjob or is there something going on that he is reluctant to fill them in on? Be prepared to ask a lot of questions and to use your imagination for the answers.
There is a specific resting point for the video camera that writer/director Oren Peli depends heavily on. He deserves credit for choosing the perfect location. Within its range, we have a stationary view of the entire bedroom and the open door to the hallway. My eyes darted back and forth across the room in a frantic way. There was so much to keep track of and I couldn't decide where to place most of my focus. Then I felt really silly when the realization hit that nothing had happened yet. It was possibilities that had me on edge.
The feeling of amusement didn't last very long. Like the villagers that heard the boy who cried wolf, I was tricked into believing that something was demanding my attention when it was really just a cheap ploy. If these ghosts that haunted the residence were serious about sending a message, they were doing a lousy job. Making noises around the house and knocking things off a kitchen counter is something a cat, a burglar or a cat burglar would do. It rivals the silliness from those reality television shows that follow ghost hunters at supposed haunted locations. The story is all in your mind. Paranormal Activity seems to take that motto to heart judging from its poor script.
Someone or something is trying to make Katie's life a living hell. We don't know why and the movie doesn't really care why. That would be okay if we were given a decent set of puzzle pieces to put together so that coherent story could exist. The movie offers about four pieces. So much for a challenge.
The finale delivers the real scares that everyone has to wait for. And to Oren Peli's credit, it's done very effectively. But it's not worth waiting through over an hour of uneventful "paranormal" activity, Katie and Micah bickering over whether or not filming the ghosts was a good idea or baring witness to some mind boggling actions from the two main characters. Why are they filming someone watching the footage from the previous night's events? The footage is already on that same camera!
It's ironic that the marketing that drove this movie to success depended on the same kind of misguided faith that makes these ghost spirits very real in the eyes of believers. Enough self-talk will convince you of anything. "I'm being followed." "I look too fat." "Paranormal Activity will be a frightening movie." Just keep telling yourself these things and they will all come true eventually.