Paranormal Activity

July 15, 2010

My wife recently expressed a desire to watch some entertaining scary movies and I happily agreed, opting to increase my viewing of a genre I tend to neglect. Spoilers follow –

Made on an apparent shoestring budget, and the recipient of a strong reaction upon its first festival screening, Paranormal Activity enjoyed the kind of effective viral marketing that has seen it become one of the most profitable films ever made, in terms of return of investment. It cost very little to make, and it raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in gross revenue. The film marked the debut feature of writer/director Oren Peli who was reportedly looking to channel his lifelong fear of ghosts into something positive and here delivers a film that shares many qualities with The Blair Witch Project and other “found footage” films like Cloverfield. It purports to be as scary as fuck, meaning it is quite decently frightening and well made in many ways, but it is also a film that just barely misses the mark it’s aiming for.

Katie and Micah are a young couple living in a house in San Diego and are introduced to us via the spiffy, high-end video camera Micah has recently purchased and operates for much of the film. He has bought it to try to capture evidence of the odd phenomena that have been occurring in their home at night. Katie states that she, specifically, is being haunted and when a psychic ghost expert answers her invitation to their home she explains that she has been haunted by some kind of supernatural presence intermittently since she was a young child and she believes it has followed her to her new home. The psychic lays out the bad news: he’s a ghost expert and what’s in their house doesn’t feel like a ghost, it feels more like a demon, and they’re a major fucking menace. He informs the young couple not to attempt to communicate with the demon or antagonize it in any way until he can reach a demon expert to come and help them. Micah, being a colossal dick, decides to attempt to communicate with the demon and antagonize it thoroughly, believing that this will somehow solve the problem. The couple set up the video camera in their bedroom to record the *ahem* paranormal activity that occurs in the middle of the night and which gradually increases in fervour and threat.

Micah & Katie

The scary parts of this film work very well, namely the static night-vision shots inside the couple’s bedroom at night when the evil spook starts fucking with them. These minimalist set-pieces form chapter headings over the worsening events of the film and rely on very basic, tried and tested methods of providing scares, with things going “bump” in the night, doors being slightly moved and eventually slammed, lights being turned on or off unexpectedly. It’s low-budget, almost entirely bloodless, and delivered with a low-frequency, dread inducing rumble of a score that lets you know shit is going down. It’s quite revealing how much more tension can be wrought from scenes in which the camera is perfectly static, set up on a tripod in this instance, rather than in the hands of one of the characters, being thrown around in shaken distress in the manner of Blair Witch, Cloverfield, etc. As a viewer you’re plunged into a sense of being just as trapped, paralysed and helpless as the sleeping couple.

There are areas that don’t work as well. The attempt at realism that is so fundamental to the approach of the film is undermined by hokey exposition and stark choices made with the characterisation. In order to be extra scary, Paranormal Activity opens sans credits or titles and instead leads in with a text thanking the families of the two main characters/actors (conveniently performing under their real names). The film is purporting to be real “found footage” discovered after the events taking place. Unfortunately, the events shown include the introduction of a third character and a subsequent over-explanation of the paranormal phenomena. A psychic for hire shows up and starts explaining the haunting in terms of common garden variety spiritualism and dime store Judaeo-Christian mythology. The entity is a demon that “feeds off negative energy”, we are told by a character who, in the real world that this film proclaims, would be a mere con man making his living writing horoscopes and exploiting elderly widows. The explanation is overly familiar and leaves you with the ineluctable conclusion that it’s just another ghost story, an updated Poltergeist.  It’s a demon; you can talk to it with a Ouija board, etc. The impression is that less said in this area could have accomplished more. Of course, I also say that from the point of view of a cynical, old skeptic. I don’t believe in the literal existence of demons or the ability to talk to them with occult messaging objects purchased in high street toy stores but, had they stuck simply to no explanation for the various phenomena occurring in the house, the overall effect could have been more unnerving. The dilemma there, however, is that there would be little else to do, in what is already a short film, during the daytime-downtime moments when the couple are trying to make sense of what is happening.

Another integral part of the plot here is having the boyfriend, Micah, make some bizarre decisions in dealing with the paranormal home invasion. Micah is what we used to widely refer to as a yuppie. He’s a day trader, which explains why he’s a young childless guy living in a large house and why he is always home. Again the stringent realism is undermined when we note Micah’s reaction to the demon is one of initial enthusiasm and excitement which gradually progresses to frustration and wounded pride at being unable to solve or prevent the problems occurring as the haunting worsens. From there he begins flippantly goading the demon and devising ridiculously ineffectual plans to somehow thwart it. His antics make him fairly unsympathetic but they also clash with the realistic approach. I would venture that even the most hardass Special Forces commando, when confronted with compelling evidence of a malevolent supernatural entity in his home that was fucking with him while he slept, would promptly shit his pants and lose his mind, becoming swiftly reduced to a gibbering wreck. This is why I continue to have so much love for the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre; it contains amongst the most sustained and realistic reactions to horror in the genre itself. The girl in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre completely freaks out and screams non-stop for the latter duration of the film once she is confronted by the crazy family of Leatherface. She enters a state of acute panic and is unable to say or do anything coherent beyond pure primal flight from danger. Micah in Paranormal Activity, however, is making plans and tackling what he sees as a challenge, weirdly confusing recording an evil supernatural entity as somehow being the same as outmanoeuvring it.

These are fairly minor, subjective quibbles from someone who would have preferred less of the explanation offered and perhaps a more extreme approach to the characters. Paranormal Activity is a very accomplished small film that delivers and achieves its goals in an overall successful manner. The ending, the very closing moment, misfires to a degree and settles for a schlocky conclusion that falls short of the climactic frights preceding it. This is unfortunate, and apparently there are a few alternate endings for the film, although none of them sound any more satisfying. That wonderful tagline first used for Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left,”To avoid fainting, keep repeating – It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie”, is a sentiment to which all good scary movies aspire and Paranormal Activity has a solid shot at hitting the mark with its hand-held vérité approach but the ending ultimately reminds the viewer that, yes, it is only a movie. That said, it’s a fun little frightener, and a perfect stay-at-home date movie for a Friday night.



  1. Man oh man, you hit the nail on the head quite a bit here. I’d like to do a point-by-point response, Helm-style, here, but I’m at work and have to settle for what I can muster in a few minutes.

    Let’s see, first thing’s first: I wasn’t expecting it to be about a demon.

    In my current mindset, I would classify myself as an agnostic teetering on the border of becoming a full-fledged atheist. BUT. I was raised Catholic. Mind you, my parents were very open-minded half-assed Catholics, but still, that dreadful business still got its hooks into my psyche and I still have that obnoxious irrational fear in the back of my mind that I’m going to die and see Jesus there with all the other characters and go “You have got to be fucking kidding me.”

    I think another way that ridiculous fear manifests itself is through a slight belief in the possibility of unexplained malevolent forces. Ghosts incite one type of fear. Demons offer a completely different kind. The mere idea that there are or have ever been some supernatural, inter-dimensional assholes whose only source of amusement is to fuck with us is unsettling. Regardless of any connection to Christian theology.

    So, this movie really messed me up. For over a week, I had an extremely hard time staying up late working/drawing/writing in my apartment. My girlfriend made fun of me, but it was no laughing matter (okay, actually it was). I could hardly stand the silence or the nighttime solitude that I so often relished in to get things done. On a purely physical level, I think what I was experiencing as the mildest form of PTSD possible. When I saw the movie I was sitting in a dark quiet room for the duration, staring at a screen and studying it with an almost constant expectation of some kind of horror or surprise (those bedroom scenes were killer) so it’s only natural that, after the movie, the feeling stayed with me in diminishing echoes for the nights following the screening of the movie.

    There are definite problems with this movie (which you nailed) and the contrast to Texas Chainsaw Massacre is more than apt. I still haven’t seen a movie that portrayed as pure and visceral and realistic a reaction to a horror scenario as that film. And since one of the main standards for film greatness is “rewatchability,” for lack of a better term, I don’t know if Paranormal Activity can be classified as anything other than a cheap one-time thrill. I’m not willing to risk my nights on another viewing anyway.

  2. Also, regarding the ending, was the one you saw the one where Micah came flying at the camera? I don’t have a link to back this up, but apparently Steven Speilberg advocated for that ending. Either of the other two alternate endings would’ve been much better.


  3. One more thing I want to mention:

    Have you heard of the book, House of Leaves?


    That’s a blog I had to put together for a class. There’s nothing of much quality beyond that entry and some stuff about posters.

  4. Damn you, man. Just how many blogs do you have at any one time? I thought that one was strictly part of your studies course and was little more than technical discussions on design. Apologies, but I all but entirely neglected it.

  5. No apologies necessary. That is the blog I had to use for class and we had to post fifty entries in one semester about anything related to “digital media.” I thought it’d be fun, but true to my style, I waited until the last few weeks to do it, so there’s not much there that I want to spread around.

  6. I’ve heard about House of Leaves but haven’t read it (put it on the massive “to do” list).

    It was the ending with Micah flying at the camera that I saw. I read about the alternative ones and didn’t think much of them initially but, on reflection, either one probably would have been better. Then again, perhaps they suffered from being anti-climatic in a film that had been building and building toward that big “fright”.

    Ha, I like your teetering on the border of becoming a full-fledged atheist. I think James might be swaying on that breezy ledge beside you. Hopefully, one day I can reach up from the depths of this liberated, materialist void and grab your ankles to pull you on in here.

    That’s pretty cool that the movie had that effect on you. The tension did fuck with me, I have to admit. I had a couple of glasses of red wine to soften the blow, gave me the courage to have a quaff and a scoff at Ouija boards and stuff like that. Truth be told, the thought has crossed my mind as I’ve been laying in bed recently; “how fucking terrifying would it be to feel a phantom breath on your face right now and hear your name being whispered?”

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