Oren Peli, “Paranormal Activity” (2007).

Oct 12 2009

Paranormal Activity

[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?

6 responses so far

  1. Films of this genre almost have to work directly against any form of rational thought (the “don’t open the door!” moments) to bring about what makes them good: the scares. I have seen many a horror film that were poor excuses for cinema, but I left them feeling satisfied because they fulfilled what was promised: making my palms sweat, heightening my senses, and causing me to jump out of my seat when something popped out at me. So, in that respect, did “Paranormal Activity” deliver?

  2. I suppose Paranormal Activity works in that respect, but I’ve never been the biggest fan of jump-out-of-your-seat horror; I like the ones that get under your skin or have a long slow “I can’t look” sequence, like the doorknob opening scene in Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Regardless of what sort of movie it is, though, the characters’ inexplicable behavior just broke the spell for me. There are some nice jolts, but by then I was pretty much too bored to care. And no, there aren’t very many “don’t open the door!” moments; almost all the straight-up “paranormal” sequences happen with a stationary camera.

  3. The whole stationary camera/creepy shit going on concept does seem interesting, but I do agree that a slow, creepy build up is definitely the touch of a good horror film/filmmaker (though, in my opinion, the jolts–if well placed and not abused–can be a nice touch). Films of this sort do have to follow a certain formula to be effective. I should have said that to begin with, but I do agree with you. Odd behavior in horror films, though, is kind of a given considering the genre. However, sure, if my Ouija board did burst into flames I probably would faint, wake up, and then get the hell out of the place and take my chances elsewhere, regardless of what a demonologist (of all people) says.

  4. [...] Activity tries so hard to avoid cliche’s that it inadvertently does them anyway. On The Wily Filipino’s review of this film, I mentioned that horror films have to work against some form of rational thought to work, [...]

  5. i’m definitely far from a renowned movie critic, but i must say i just watched this film tonight and it left me kind of yawning. it definitely had it’s good moments from time to time, but i guess after all of the hype i heard from friends, colleagues, etc., it just didn’t do it for me. i watched the DVD, so i do feel it would have had much more of an impact on me if i watched it on the big screen with surround sound. but at the end of the film, i was left with wanting sweatier palms =) i give it a “meh, not bad”.

  6. See, I would have thought that watching it at home would have provided an optimal experience though, considering you’re also peeking into another person’s bedroom. But yes — especially after seeing the trailer, I wanted to be really scared out of my wits, and I wasn’t. (The scene where the woman stands, though — that gave me a good scare.)

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