You bought a tract house in San Diego at the height of the housing bubble. I’d be scared, too.
Paranormal Activity is the latest addition to the “found footage” genre of filmmaking, made popular 10 years ago by The Blair Witch Project. It didn’t start there, of course. Blair Witch owes a little something to Cannibal Holocaust, but the less said about that movie the better. Since Blair Witch, we’ve seen Diary of the Dead and Cloverfield, among others, each adding its own take on the general conceit, which filmmakers would say is about crafting a film in a documentary style to create a heightened sense of realism and immediacy. But which I would say is about crafting a film about stupid white people with video cameras.
Paranormal Activity stars Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston, two unknown, but very natural, believable actors. They play Micah and Katie, a young couple living in the suburbs of San Diego, who are trying to figure out what’s been bothering Katie lately. You see, since she was 8, Katie has been haunted by a presence. It comes and goes over the years, and now it’s back. The couple has been hearing strange noises around the house, and Micah is determined to get some film evidence of the haunting. It’s a great concept. And there are some genuinely terrifying and disturbing scenes. The fact that they accomplished all this with little or no budget is amazing. They also utilize some clever devices to spur the imagination, like showing us illustrations of demons in a book Micah’s reading. It’s enough to plant the idea in our imaginations, which can think up a villain far worse than anything they could actually show us on film. Setting the camera up in their bedroom is also a brilliant move, creating a sense of intimacy and violation. You’re at your most vulnerable in bed, whether asleep, having sex or just whispering to your partner. Katie is fearful of the demon and desperately wants Micah to take her (and it) seriously. Micah, however, is controlling, manipulative and somewhat emotionally abusive. He wants to save her himself and kick the demon out of his house, at great risk to Katie and himself. Ultimately, we realize Katie is possessed all right, not just by one demon, but by Micah, too.
A better movie would have given us a twist, revealing the demon to be protecting Katie from Micah. But I promised to stop reviewing movies I cook up in my head while watching other movies. So, never mind.
All of this works very well. The problem, of course, is that no matter how clever the idea is, it eventually breaks down. For the most part, we, as an audience, are reasonable people. We enjoy and expect movies to show us people doing extraordinary things, but carrying around your video camera and filming your own life in mortal danger stretches it a bit far. Yet, if any of these characters acted like a rational person, chucked the camera and ran, there would be no movie. So, I understand the limitations and the need to suspend disbelief. The other concept that stretched my patience, as well as that of the rest of the audience, was the location. The actors keep reminding us that the demon is tied to Katie, so leaving the house is pointless. The demon will follow. The fourth or fifth time they made this point, my audience started chuckling, then started offering helpful suggestions, like “Go to a police station!” or “Go to a church!” or, my favorite, “Go to Denny’s!” The filmmakers clearly want us to be frustrated with Katie’s situation, but, ultimately, we’re only frustrated with a character acting against all reasonable instinct. Only a few minutes into the movie, I began to imagine Anna Faris playing Katie in the inevitable parody.
Me, I know demons. I got plenty (of the personal kind). And I fight them with another kind of demon: namely, an array of flavored vodkas. So, believe me, if any of my demons actually took a stand and started dragging me around the house, you can bet your life I’d hurl my video camera at them and run like Forrest Gump on speed to the nearest all-night paranormal research and exorcism facility. Thankfully, there are three near my house. This is Los Angeles, after all. But you don’t care about that. Is the movie scary? Yes. Before it devolves into silly, it’s plenty ominous, suspenseful and creepy. I actually walked home from the movie theater and found myself glancing back over my shoulder whenever I heard a noise. But again, this is Los Angeles, so I do that in broad daylight, too.
On the FBOTU Scale of Fabulousness, I give Paranormal Activity 3 out of 5 emoticons showing the progression of my emotional state while watching the film:
Crotch Watch: In the first few minutes of the film, we get some nice “found footage” of Micah in a pair of very flattering jeans, then later that night in a pair of very flattering boxers. Then the movie becomes all about Katie’s breasts and their power over the paranormal.