Paranormal Activity (2007)

paranormal activity

“Something’s here!”

The Scoop: 2007 R, directed by Oren Peli and starring Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat and Mark Fredrichs

Tagline: Don’t see it alone

Summary Capsule: A young couple annoyed by patterns of bumps in the night decide to film what happens while they sleep, but the footage offers them no relief at all

Kyle’s rating: Who says horror is dead?

Kyle’s review: Regardless of how suspenseful or scary one finds Paranormal Activity to be as “found” footage of a young couple documenting their haunting by a strange presence, as a film it is so wildly successful regarding three important story elements that I can whole-heartedly exclaim that it is well your time and money.

1. You understand and believe in the reasons they don’t just leave their haunted house.

First and foremost, they do an excellent job of explaining it isn’t the house that’s haunted: it’s Katie (Katie Featherston). It’s an intriguing twist not only for rendering the ‘haunting’ as something very personal, being heavily connected to a variety of events dating back to her childhood, but simultaneously managing (through some conjecture based on their internet research) to retain some semblance of randomness. Why specifically Katie is the focus of the paranormal activity is always a mystery, which increases the powerlessness of the characters and partly explains the crudeness of their responses, since they are flailing about in fear for options rather than having any sense of a correct ‘fix’ they can work towards. Which leads to . . .

2. Almost immediately, the gimmick of the entire film being documented by their personal video camera becomes believably natural.

There are a few things that validate this much of their lives being filmed beyond serving as an attempt to actually capture a ghost on-camera. First and foremost, it absolutely rings true as something Micah (Micah Sloat) would do (see also #3 below). Just as importantly, Katie never fully agrees with Micah decision to film everything, and at best grudgingly goes along with the plan simply to placate Micah while there are much more pressing things to worry about. Touches like everyone consistently treating the camera like the intrusive object it is but ‘acting natural’ anyway (a feat the characters in Cloverfield never quite pull off, to that film’s detriment) and maintaining an amateur roughness to the camera angles and when and where the camera is set down serve to  remind us that filming is a desperate move by stressed people. But Katie’s simmering anger at Micah’s insistence that the camera is doing more good than harm is the fulcrum on which the whole plot moves, and more notably transforms the footage itself into a judgement on Micah himself, which is to say . . .

3. Paranormal Activity effectively captures exactly what life is like when you’re dating a ‘bro’ douchebag of a boyfriend.

When future generations look back at this first decade of the 21st century, and are puzzled by references to ‘bro’s’ and ‘overgrown frat-boy manchild(ren),’ Paranormal Activity‘s Micah will serve as a Rosetta Stone for that certain genre of guys. Beyond revealing Micah’s profession to be “daytrader” the film allows Micah’s behavior, opinions, and his interactions with Katie to form his character: we get plenty of information to validate the actions he takes AND inform our opinion of how he has lived his entire life to get to the point we see in Paranormal Activity. Without any photographic or spoken dialogue regarding Micah’s background, you can just tell his collar was popped from an early age, he frequently mixed white or pink polo shirts prominently displaying small designer logos with extremely baggy brown cargo shorts and flip-flops, and even if he didn’t formally belong to a fraternity he went to enough frat parties in college to earn honorary membership. His dynamic with Katie and his penchant for calling her “babe” with a vaguely McConaughey-ish affectation points strongly towards his status as a ‘bro,’ and the film’s unspoken but clear implication that his idiotic and incendiary alpha-male-buffoon posturing towards the otherwordly presence is what pushes the situation out of control is a stroke of genius.

An alternate Micah that was caring and considerate towards his beleaguered wife would not only make for a fairly boring movie but also wouldn’t ring true: beyond Micah being a complete jackass it feels so much more real that under the stress of what’s going on, Micah and Katie would snipe at each other and mutter passive aggressive insults at each other to blow off steam. They’re still an united front against their demonic tormentor, with appropriate cues highlighting Micah’s dominance and Katie’s submissiveness, but the way they argue and fight even as they can rely on only each other sells their relationship as a real one. This isn’t a typical movie relationship where plot dictates when they agree and disagree and each character gets one or two minor quirks to establish ‘depth.’ This is as close to a working relationship as cinematic depictions can get, with all the complexities and power struggle we single people find utterly perplexing about couples in the real world. Usually with horror films even the best performances are described as ‘as good as necessary;’ here the real Katie and Micah are exceptional at portraying the less guarded home behaviors too intimate to capture as typical motion picture footage, but perfectly suited to enlarge personal home videos.

I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the controversies regarding the ending of the film. It is the work of less than a minute online to find detailed descriptions of the other two endings that exist; apparently no less a cinematic authority than Steven Spielberg suggested changing the original ending, which serves to further illustrate precisely where that fourth Indiana Jones film came from. It is difficult to say that the theatrical, presumably studio-enforced ending is ‘bad:’ it is certainly the worst and least artistically-satisfying of the three possible. It’s probably most accurate to say that the film itself deserves one of the other, much more bleaker endings, but that during its theatrical run the ending it has is the ending the audience deserves; nowhere can you currently guarantee a greater presence of vapid, texting, mouth-breathing idiots than theaters in which Paranormal Activity is now playing. Which is good for the film’s box office and just as good for intelligent viewers: in these modern times when the existence of ‘unrated’ versions and branching alternate endings available as DVD options is becoming just as important to a film as its theatrical run, Paranormal Activity will surely thrive from the more intimate climate of home viewing and stand as a stronger film with the ability to choose an earlier, more thematically-coherent ending.

As impressed as I remain by Paranormal Activity, I don’t want to get your hopes up too much that it is a complete triumph of a film. Horror fans like myself suffer from too much formulaic fare and plenty of shoddy money grabs that offer at best an inspired scene or two; when something really shines, we get excited over even the smallest of innovative pleasures. This film and its premise is extremely well-executed and the acting appropriating engaging, and the unseen nature of just what is going on is much more unnerving than even a split second glimpse of a demonic presence. That said, and perhaps this is tied in with the numerous adjustments made to the end of the film (though one scene in particular seems common to every version of Paranormal Activity), what is consistently a strong and balanced story crumples near the end seemingly only to ensure a ‘big’ ending to send audiences out smiling and talking. Although Katie and Micah are portrayed as stubborn and dedicated to their own beliefs regarding the incidents, a late development strains character credibility and in retrospect is the one and only ham-fisted move that accomplishes nothing except keeping both characters in the camera frame. Though several shots of their living room show that Katie and Micah have a boisterous DVD collection, some final decisions seem to indicate not a single one is any kind of horror film. Even the most horror-illiterate person would have, on common sense alone, run screaming and alone from the house at that certain point. Though again, that would have robbed the film of a handful of moments that serve the audience more than the plot; if nothing else know that when the movie seems to veer apocalyptically towards setting up a big final scare, that’s the time to hold whoever you brought with you as tightly as possible.

I actually look forward to seeing this film again, and not only for its timely release as an October date night option. Flaws and quibbles aside, Paranormal Activity is a strong enough viewing experience that kept me up past 3 a.m. not just to write this review but to glance furtively to the hallway where I was certain something wicked that way would come. It is largely a work telling a story first and supplying thrills second, and its tone and depths are surprisingly satisfying. I think even its apparent nods to genre conventions are more nuanced than they appear to be. Besides Katie and Micah we see only two other characters: an intriguing small-waisted close friend of Katie’s and the “psychic expert” on ghosts (Mark Fredrichs) Katie calls as an attempt towards understanding. The expert is clearly competent, rendered moreso by Micah’s typical immediate dislike towards him and his suggestions. His first visit speaks to his competency, his second much-shorter visit could be seen to highlight either his cowardice or selfish disregard for Katie and Micah’s well-being. Despite sensing clearly that the presence in the house has been incensed by recent events and by himself being in the house, he offers vague platitudes about his recommended demonologist returning in a few days and that everything will be fine before rushing out the door. I think it’s the kind of talk a kindly doctor offers a dying patient: his expertise can’t help them but allows him to recognize impending doom. Underplaying that realization grounds the film and drives home that this isn’t just a movie masquerading as ‘found footage’ nor a flashy gimmick but ultimately in its own way the type of entertaining cautionary tale that some of the best horror films, even the most outlandish, aspire to be. Whether you subscribe to its moral or not, I guarantee you will not be less than entertained by this particular strain of paranormal activity.

"Is it...?"  "Shh!  It's Kyle!  He's here!"
“Is it…?” “Shh! It’s Kyle! He’s here!”

Intermission!

  • As mentioned, Steven Spielburg had a copy of the original version of the film; he reportedly found it so scary he had to turn it off halfway through. After finally viewing it in its entirety, his strong suggestion that the darker ending be changed was apparently immediately acted upon (he being Steven Spielburg, after all)
  • Micah consults a book at one point for research purposes: that book is the 1971 trade paperback ‘Picture Book of Devils, Demons and Witchcraft’ by Ernst and Johanna Lehner

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • The Blair Witch Project
  • Cloverfield
  • [REC]

8 comments

  1. Shawna, I disagree. Though I think it doesn’t live up to its hype completely, that’s not say it’s “bad”… but I saw it on DVD first (horror festivals are so awesome)and I didn’t really think it all that good, and decided it was fairly good later, as long as you see it in the theatre.

  2. I saw this movie in a dark bedroom on a laptop computer with headphones … And it scared the living crap out of me. Great review and a truly frightening movie.

    Note to self…

    when the ghost expert says “call the demonoligist” CALL the demonoligist!!!

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