[SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW, but trust me, most of the plot, including the money shot, is almost all in the trailer anyway.]
Paranormal Activity has its conceptual and formal charms, but they, like my patience, wore rapidly thin. Purportedly the home movie of a suburban couple increasingly terrorized by, well, paranormal activity, the film’s premise should already be familiar to an audience already weaned on Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999), or television shows like “Ghost Hunters” or “Paranormal State”. The couple is convinced that their house is haunted, and so they’ve installed a camera in their bedroom to record what happens as they’re sleeping.
There’s been a lot of hype about how the film has been distributed in theaters – it’s basically prompted by audience demand in different cities – and the trailer prominently features the communal horror-movie viewing experience. It’s how you’ll want to watch the movie, anyway, just for the shared jolts and the delight of having someone kicking the back of your theater seat in terror. Not that I’m suggesting you should.
Like a Saturday Night Live skit that just wouldn’t end (or a 90-minute adaptation of this classic YouTube video — turn up your speakers!), Paranormal Activity sets up the basic mise en scène – hey, I can finally use this phrase because it’s literally accurate! – and then proceeds to repeat it maybe 20 more times. I’m normally a fan of this sort of structural rigor – like Chairman Mao, I dig repetition – but here it’s simply wearisome and unbelievable.
What’s most annoying is how the plot creaks along too obviously, with little twists thrown in to justify the inconsistencies in the script. Whatever is troubling their suburban home, for instance, isn’t exactly a ghost, and therefore leaving won’t work. It’s basically meant to circumvent that old Eddie Murphy comic routine about white people in The Amityville Horror – “Why don’t the people just get the hell out of the house?” – because apparently it won’t help the protagonists much. “You cannot run from this; it will follow you,” warns a psychic. Well, FML. Guess that’s the go-signal for lather, rinse, repeat.
In fact, the protagonists, played by newcomers Katie Featherstone and Micah Sloat, don’t do very much at all. (They’re an English-lit grad student and day trader respectively, which obviously translates into no skills at all when it comes to ghostbusting – or, arguably, not much else. Clearly Micah’s financial resources aren’t enough for them to crash at a motel just for one night to test if the psychic’s theory was hopefully wrong.)
What was at least convincing about The Blair Witch Project was the way it portrayed people at the verge of an emotional breakdown: confusion, irrationality, and a nerve-fraying fear accompanied by tears and snot. The problem with Paranormal Activity is that the couple just don’t seem to be scared enough. As a result, the stakes don’t seem very high, and the peril they’re in doesn’t seem to be particularly urgent. (There’s a friend, presumably part of Katie’s grad school cohort, who shows up a couple of times, but she treats the haunting as if it were merely a plumbing problem because so do Katie and Micah.) I’ve seen people more freaked out by mice in their attic.
It’s the odd paradox of Paranormal Activity: the minimalist veracity of its “found footage” — and the interesting intimacy that the viewer begins to have with the house’s fixtures (the blinds, the bed, the floor, the chandelier) — is wholly undercut by the lack of verisimilitude in the couple’s behavior. Let’s just say I’d be crapping in my pants if, for instance, I saw a Ouija board in my living room burst into flames. Their reaction?They start exhibiting irrational behavior, all right: there’s a malevolent force in the house, so, hey, why don’t we sleep in the same bedroom, keep turning off all the lights, and still leave the goddamn bedroom door open? (Each instance of paranormal activity – and granted, they’re impressive under the technical limitations – is actually preceded by a non-diegetic rumble on the soundtrack, which strikes me as being either evidence of laziness or the director’s lack of faith in the audience.) Combine this with Micah’s total lack of panic and inexplicable determination to have the phenomena actually escalate, even after Katie starts exhibiting, let’s just call it “symptoms”, and well, suspension of disbelief can only go so far.
If there was any grander lesson about all this, then it must be about suburban isolation and the peculiar dissolution of a social network that their lifestyle seems to entail. One of the elements of the ghost story — or many horror movies, really — is that the protagonists’ fear is magnified by the outside world’s skepticism. There’s the policeman who’s convinced you’re just hearing things, the psychiatrist who thinks you’re just stressed and gives you a sedative, the unbelieving neighbor who tells you to calm down and says everything is all right (usually just before they get axed in the head).
In Paranormal Activity, there isn’t a single cop or shrink or doctor or neighbor or family member or spiritual leader in sight, presumably because Micah thinks he can ward off evil with his camera. When they finally do decide to call someone, even the demonologist — I am not making this part up — was away on vacation. See what unilateralism gets you?