Monday, October 4, 2010

One Minutes Review: Paranormal Activity

At this point Paranormal Activity is not so much a film as a cultural artifact. Somehow into the critical mix comes the knowledge that this isn't just a horror film, but an artifact that was made for next to nothing and went on to not only make hundreds of millions but also beat all the big money makers at the box office, while in limited release no less. Forget whether it's good or not, $100,000,000 doesn't lie. Truth is, when we strip it all back down to basics, the movie is only okay.

It begins with a brilliant and unquestionably scary premise. A girl feels as though she is being followed by a paranormal presence, which has been in and out of her life since age 8. Her boyfriend, who she lives with, buys a video camera in order to hopefully capture something on tape so they can get a better understanding of it. In all the extensive research he does on the paranormal he certainly must have come across some numbers to suggest that the likelihood of catching the paranormal on tape exists somewhere in the one percentile, but no matter. They call up a psychic who specializes in ghosts and informs them that he can't help. His speciality is the dead but what he senses is a demon which, he helpfully explains, is not human but rather some evil force that follows people around just to mess with them. And so the nights go. The occurrences start out mild: footsteps in the hallway, doors moving slightly to and fro, lights flicking on and off, Katie (the girl) getting out of bed and standing over Micah (her boyfriend) for hours without explanation.  

The psychic gives the couple the name of a demonologist to help them but Micah refuses the aid of the new doctor in one of the film's sly jabs at human nature: Micah's alpha male persona gets the best of him as he casts himself in the role of protector. Ain't no ghost going to mess with his girl. But the hauntings get worse: pictures are broken, loud noises cry out from the dark, footprints appear on the floor and Katie is dragged out of bed by an invisible force.

All of this is fine and dandy and by the time the hour and a half running time grinds to a halt, completely tiring and redundant. The majority of the hauntings occur in dark blue huges as the stationary camera films the couple's dark bedroom, a convenient clock in the bottom corner conveying the time. The setting is so repetitious that it ultimately negates the purpose. As soon as the lights go out and that blue eye-level shot appears we know that, sometime between 2:00am and 4:00am something spooky is going to go down and it's only a matter of time before writer/director Oren Peli stretches his prospects too thin. There's only so many times footsteps, flicked lights and absent-minded wanderings in the dark retain their power before enough is enough, leading up to a "shocking" ending which is, considering, about as predictable as it is unbelievable.

As a cultural artifact, Paranormal Activity is fascinating. As a horror film, it's passable for a little while.


  1. "As soon as the lights go out and that blue eye-level shot appears we know that, sometime between 2:00am and 4:00am something spooky is going to go down"

    I thought that's what was effective about the film - every time we'd get that static camera shot which indicated another evening's filming, I'd tense up a bit more (I remember thinking the audience did too). And since nothing would happen right away, it would give you time to curl up a bit in your seat in anticipation - especially since each successive one was just a bit more intense.

    Granted, it isn't perfect and I agree about the ending (the finale was studio decreed from what I remember hearing). But I'm biased towards films that don't rush their scares and aren't all about shocks.

    I have to say, I'm looking forward to the sequel...

  2. Bob- I did admire the film at first for it's restraint but as the film goes on and on it just lost me (certainly that moving door is scarier than the fire and the photo in the attic). I remember the thing that I admired most about the Blair Witch (which is, needless to say, a much better film) was that it built so slow that, when all hell broke lose, it didn't let up until an ending shot that still haunts me. This movie, on the other hand, is too narrow in scope to build to such a release.

    The ending was indeed changed by the studio, for the very purpose I can say, having seen the original ending, of the sequel. If you don't know the original ending (spoiler) it is exactly the same except Katie kills herself as well.

  3. Thanks for reminding me about this. Going to watch it soon.

  4. I agree with your take. It had its effective moments, but ultimately suffers from the problems you say it does.

    Since this comment thread has contained spoilers already, let me add one more SPOILER ALERT! One thing that really bothered me about seeing this film was, I saw it late enough in the run that the TV ads were already showing Micah's body being hurled through that door, which is one of the last things that occurs in the movie. There's a fine line between revealing more footage after a movie has come out, to goose sales, and basically ruining the movie.

  5. Vance - Yes, I remember seeing the body being thrown in some of the earliest ads before it even opened wide but didn't pay enough attention to know exactly what it was. It's pretty sad, I can't really think of many ads these days that don't include scenes from big climactic moments (The Town, Love and Other Drugs just to name a few), I've sat in the theatre many times and sad "well, we don't need to pay to see that now, we've already seen most of it."

  6. Yeah, it was okay. You're right about the predictability. Do you know about the second Paranormal Activity set for release?

  7. Celtic- I don't know anything about the sequel except the drama that I wrote about last uear over the director which, sadly, didn't amount to much. IMDB lists the only character as Katie but what/how big a role she plays I have no idea.