[9 October 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I’ll kiss you, not the camera.” Katie (Katie Featherston) is unhappy that her boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat) has brought a video camera into their new San Diego home. He wants to record what’s been happening at night—the doors creaking and the furniture moving. She’s skeptical that recording will help and resents Micah’s new distraction. He thinks documentation is an end in itself.
That documentation is the premise of Paranormal Activity. Like The Blair Witch Project (now 10 years old, if you can believe it), it presents “footage” collected from the scene of some terrible doings, footage made by participants whose perspective is limited by definition. The scene in this case is mostly Micah and Katie’s bedroom, where he sets up a camera to watch them sleep—and be menaced unwittingly by stomping sounds, doors closing and opening, and lights flicking on and off. The stationary camera and the night-vision effect make the image more intriguing than it might have been, in that whatever’s happening downstairs or in the hallway remains unseen, and what’s in frame is muddled and blurred. It’s a time-tested means of delivering scares on screen: what you don’t see is worse than what you do.
Shot for something like $11,000, Oren Peli’s movie exacerbates this effect by time-lapsing some of the nighttime events, the time-code racing along in the lower right-hand corner as sheets move and sleeping forms shift. During the day, when Micah (a day trader) and Katie (an English student) watch the recordings or debate what to do, he brings the camera along with him, so we’re privy to their increasing anxiety. This anxiety is aggravated by the revelation that Katie has experience with this phenomenon dating back to her childhood. It’s not until they invite a psychic (Michael Bayouth) to check the house that she starts describing visits from something ooky at her bedside when she was just eight years old. She doesn’t know what it is or what it wants. She only knows that it has breathed on her at night, and whispered. Sometimes it has whispered her name. “It was always at the foot of my bed,” she says, not her sister’s.
The professional listens to her carefully, nods occasionally. It’s not a ghost, he says, which is his area of expertise. In fact, it’s likely not human, but instead a demon, and so she’ll have to call someone else. “These hauntings,” he says, “They feed off of negative energy.” No kidding. Just as you’re thinking you’ve seen this movie before, Micah echoes your doubts, dismissing the psychic’s opinions as no-nothing posturing. What Micah doesn’t get is that he also follows the typical trajectory. “This is my house,” he says, “You’re my girlfriend.” And so, he insists, he’ll solve the problem himself. He’ll get more images. And he’ll do exactly what the psychic instructs him not to do: he’ll invite the demon to engage by using a Ouija board.
Micah and Katie’s arguments accelerate as they’re more sleep-deprived. “I understand that all this stuff is new to you and exciting,” she complains, “but it isn’t new to me.” Micah comes back with the obvious charge, that if she knew about it before, wouldn’t it have been “a good thing to bring up” before they decided to live together? Katie sighs as he heads off to check the security system. “It doesn’t care about alarms,” she says, or whether doors and windows are locked. “What’ is happening is already here.”
While these exchanges might seem peripheral to the main scary-movie business, they’re not so separate. The titular and sometimes distressing activity (noises and footprints and the last-minute, frankly cheesy deployment of a bloody crucifix) serves as a mostly banal metaphor for the couple’s relationship. It’s also conventional in the extreme. Katie’s resentment of the camera, and more generally, of Micah’s dismissing her “feelings” in order to pursue his version of the problem, comprises a predictably gendered opposition. And Micah’s determination to fix the problem takes a usual form, pride and machismo. His actual nerdiness makes Micah sympathetic, or at least a point of identification for the college students, male and female, who have made the film’s limited early opening so successful: enthusiastic responses to midnight screenings have convinced Paramount to expand the release.
This makes the movie seem less innovative and clever than obvious and banal. Viewers like to call out Micah for calling out the demon for not being manly enough, not showing itself (“Is that all you’ve got?). And Katie’s role as demonic vessel is hardly news, as girls have been used and abused by monsters for decades, usually as ways to teach boys humility or introspection. “This is why it scares me,” Katie pleads with Micah, “Because you don’t take it seriously.” Micah insists, “We’ve got it documented, so it’s gonna be fine.” You know, if they don’t, where that conflict is going.