Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Michael Bayouth
US theatrical: 25 Sep 2009
Things that go bump in the night. The unexpected chill running up (or down) your spine. The unknown shadow sitting at the foot of the bed. The touch of some unseen hand on your shoulder. The fear of something sinister infiltrating your otherwise rational life. These are the classic signs of the paranormal, human interaction with spectral beings of either supernatural or otherwise unexplained origins. For decades, cinema has capitalized on these undeniable creep-outs, utilizing them to create haunted house horrors and other ghostly delights. As with many examples of the genre, as much is left to the imagination as is illustrated outright on screen.
Now comes the efficiently titled Paranormal Activity, an $11,000 indie effort that wants to utilize the post-modern first person POV camera technique to tell the tale of a doomed couple and the unearthly presence that won’t let them be. Micah and Katie have been having some restless nights as of late, and decide to by a camera to document what is happening while they sleep. After seeing random events and experiencing unsettling noises, the couple calls in a psychic for some help. He explains that a demon is behind these night terrors, an entity that has been stalking Katie for years. As they grow more and more uncomfortable in their home, the sinister situations increase. Soon, they are living day to day, in fear for their lives, utterly disturbed by what the camera is picking up.
Overhyped to the point of hysteria and lacking anything remotely redeeming for the seasoned fright fan, Paranormal Activity is all smoke and one too many mirrors. It’s an accurate reflection of an audience incapable of separating truth from trickery, a waste of time in both concept and execution. Kudos to writer/director Oren Peli and the various dread websites that have successfully ballooned this minor movie all out of proportion. They have made an event out of a non-entity, a direct to DVD title that would have showed some promise had it inexplicable and unexpectedly arrived in someone’s mailbox one day. In its barebones, low rent approach is an attempt to mimic reality without actually dealing with the actual implications of such a style. As a result, we get a typical scary movie gussied up with too much media expectations and too little onscreen substance.
You see, Paranormal Activity takes a long time getting to its point, playing possum with the viewer as we watch two amateur actors try and sell us some happy families. The initial scenes are so mind-numbingly pointless, lulling the audience into a sense of complacency so static that you wish a monster would appear out of the shadows and swallow both betrotheds whole. It may seem unfair to pick on their performances but both Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat are way out of their league here. They believe that bickering and whining somehow translates into empathy, that simply being belligerent and irrational will get a crowd behind their funhouse fallacies. Instead, we grow so angry at these two, so frustrated by their inert desire to do nothing, that we hope their passive approach to the situation costs them their lives.
Had Featherston and Sloat been better actors, had they understood that there needs to be some manner of counterbalance to all the complaining, maybe Paranormal Activity might work. After all, if you can’t afford a special effects extravaganza, or at the very least, a setting outside your parent’s San Diego home, you got to give us something. People we care about can lift a viewer past many low budget roadblocks, but Peli can’t provide said connection. Instead, his cast acts like imbeciles, sitting back in subservient resolve as an unseen presence does whatever the Hell it wants. Seasoned horror fans will instantly recognize the manipulations applied - the trip into the attic, the wonky Ouija board bit - all adding up to an uneven attempt at fear. But suspense is only successful when a vested interest or known villainy is offered. Paranormal Activity is just stagnant shuck and jive.
And the hype isn’t helping matters, especially for anyone beyond a certain age who remembers the classic come-ons of the ‘50s and ‘60s. This is definitely NOT the ‘scariest movie ever made’, and the trailers featuring freaked out audiences are clearly picking through footage to find the most extreme reactions shots ever. Truth in advertising would demand that the preview also provide glimpses of the first 40 minutes, where nothing at all scary happens, or the various moments of inadvertent humor as viewers chuckle along with Katie and Micah’s multiple boneheaded decisions. Well formed films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Exorcist don’t need their legacy illegitimized by a short attention span generation that can’t remember past the easy access days of ‘80s direct to video horror. To consider this film better than some of the seminal works of the past is undeniable genre heresy.
Suffice it to say, Paranormal Activity is yet another in a long line of oversold cinematic situations that can’t possibly live up to the mythos being built. Those who fall into this film quickly, nervous for the couple and what happens to them over the course of 20 uneven nights, will definitely declare it a winner. To them, it will be an unnerving experience that reminds them that unusual sounds in a darkened room are not just the house settling, or the neighbors acting up. As the demon forges ahead with its plans to possess Katie, continuing a pattern that’s been in play the girl’s entire life, they’ll cringe and cry out in cathartic expressions of adrenaline fueled release.
But don’t discount those who simply cross their arms and dismiss everything that’s happening onscreen. Paranormal Activity pretends to be a heart-stopping edge of your seat entertainment. It’s actually just a homemade horror movie blown all out of proportion by studios sensing a hit. As with all examples of cinematic chicanery, the only person to blame when you’re burned is yourself. This is moviemaking as an elaborate trick. Pray you don’t get fooled…again.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.