Tuesday, October 22, 2013

REVIEW: Paranormal Activity (2007)

Of all the movies in the horror genre these last ten or fifteen years, nothing has changed the landscape more than the Blair Witch Project. Something about the concept of attractive young people with cameras filming themselves as they wander around in the woods just really caught on. I guess it’s like I said in my “Why do modern horror movies suck?” post a few weeks ago – we’re the Do It Yourself generation. We just love filming, documenting and recording every aspect of our lives as if we are important. And thus, one of our newfound fears is extremely close personal eye-level accounts of horror – we want to see up close what’s killing us.

And though Blair Witch laid the foundations for all of that, Paranormal Activity really took the idea to a new level and brought the fear into peoples’ own homes and everyday lives. It was also the series that showed us how cool everything looked in that dark blue lighting. Since the DVD box proclaims it “a scary at-home viewing experience,” who am I to contest the Confucianistic wisdom of DVD box covers? Let’s review Paranormal Activity.

Director: Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat

We start right off with a guy named Micah who I think has some kind of new sexual disorder – he loves cameras almost as much as his girlfriend.

"Don't worry, Camera! I was just pretending to still be in denial!"

Seriously, this guy is obsessed with cameras. He carries it around everywhere just to talk to her while she’s brushing her teeth or reading on the couch. Like he couldn’t just do that without carrying the camera everywhere.

Seriously though, here’s the basic plot of this thing, if you haven’t been living under a rock the last four years: he wants to use the camera because his girlfriend Katie has been experiencing paranormal activity (TITLE DROP!) since she was a little girl and hasn’t been able to stop it. She tells a story about how when she was a little girl, she used to see a dark hooded figure standing at the foot of her bed which wouldn’t go away. Then her house lit on fire. Uh, I don’t think that’s a demonic spirit. I think that’s a drunk member of the KKK who got the wrong house.

But the movie maintains that it was a demonic spirit. For some reason it’s getting worse just as the movie is starting. Katie wants to go to an exorcist, but because Micah saw The Exorcism of Emily Rose, he decided cameras were the better way to go.

"Allow me to make sure you never have a private moment to yourself ever again..."

The first twenty minutes or so are pretty basic set-up type stuff, which mostly consists of Katie telling Micah to turn the camera off. Which is one of the main things about this movie that imitators ended up copying! Isn’t that awesome? Most of the dialogue in this is actually well done, and feels realistic. But one of the main problems with this movie is just how many excuses they have to make to have the camera in every scene, because, you know – otherwise we wouldn’t have anything at all. So we get tons of scenes that would otherwise be entirely natural and effective, broken up because the actors have to shoehorn in a line about the camera being there – it gets kind of old after the first three or four times.

Seriously, what guy really loves shooting home movies this much? I mean, I get it – sometimes he’s just horsing around and experimenting with the camera, but what about the other scenes, like the talking in the bathroom ones, or just the random bits where she’s sitting on the couch or hanging out with her friend? Did he need to have a camera for all of those moments?

"You could've just come and told us without the camera, you kn---"

It makes me think the film would have been generally more effective if they’d just reigned in the camera stuff to the really effective scenes at night when stuff really happens. It’s more original the way they did it, but there are only so many ways to say “get that camera out of my face!”

Then we get the bedroom scenes, which are the ones the movie is often remembered for. If you like dark blue lights and scenes of nothing going on while the timer fast-forwards to show us that time is passing, you’ll be in heaven with these. Look out for the special unrated version where they don’t fast forward through these scenes. The movie is 28 hours long! You can also see snippets of the cameraman flashing the audience if you look close at the scene transitions. Buy it at your local Walmart today.

But then everything gets super serious the next morning when Katie finds that – gasp! – her keys have been moved a couple inches off the counter and wound up on the floor! The horror!

And not only that, but when they look at the tapes later, they see that the ghost also added moving a door a few inches to its resume of blood-curdling terror! Nooooooooo!

So yeah, this is your scares for the first act of the movie: doors moving a few inches, and keys on the floor. Can you just feel the horror? I guess it’s serious enough to warrant some exorcist doctor guy coming over though. He talks about some stuff that the movie needs for the trailer: “it’s not human,” “you can’t run from this,” etc, etc, etc…it’s all pretty bland, and the guy is a fairly inconsequential character otherwise. I mean, do we really need a guy sitting on the couch to tell us the thing haunting us isn’t human? Seems pretty self-explanatory to me. What, do they think it’s Dennis the Menace? Is that suddenly a convincing alternative?

We also get some scenes of Micah researching demons and whatnot – it’s not too long of a scene, and I don’t mind it, but it does point out a chief difference between this and the old movies of the 70s and 80s. It’s just too serious and orthodox. The film takes its religious demon science as just that – a science, and endows it all with a sort of dogmatic fervor that doesn’t really lend itself to the kind of cool, bizarre and spontaneous feel that I liked so much in movies like The Beyond, Suspiria or Evil Dead – those movies didn’t need to explain so much what the evil things haunting us are.

Which is scarier - this, or...
...this, with just the bare minimum of explanation?

Now, I am not trying to compare Paranormal Activity to those films as some kind of a basis to slag on PA. They’re very different movies and they have different ways of expressing themselves. But there’s one fundamental flaw in the methodology of a film like this: research is not scary. It’s just not. Having Micah flipping through a book and giving us exposition on the demons sheds light on what should be shrouded in shadows, waiting to scare us. While I won’t try and claim the film after this is bereft of scares, it would have been even more chilling if the movie didn’t feel the need to explain itself and bring in all this super-serious, dogmatic stuff. Horror is scarier when you have no clue what it is you’re dealing with. As this is all obviously fictional and made-up, you don’t have to really go into detail on the science and history behind demons – sometimes it may be beneficial, but most of the time it’s better just to go for the throat and scare us, rather than wasting our time with exposition and explanation of what everything is.

But I digress; you know what’s TRULY scary? A bug in the bathroom! AAAAAGGGGGHHHHH!!!

The true manifestation of evil...really....

Yup, another of this movie’s invaluable contributions to the world of horror – Katie screams for Micah about a spider in the bathroom, because you know; a girl who’s been haunted by demonic hooded figures standing at the foot of her bed would really be afraid of fucking insects. And I also love how Micah goes and grabs his stupid camera before going to help his screaming girlfriend – just imagine if she’d really been in danger. He’d be a real dick in that case! Ha ha ha! What a card.

Then we get some more scenes of sleeping with blue lights. There are some loud noises and Micah shouts at the demon like a deprived pro wrestler laid off for too much contact with the opponents’ genitals. Then they go back to sleep and Katie decides it’s time to go for a little possessed walk down the stairs!

You know, I’m having some trouble seeing into the logic of this demonic creature stalking them. I mean, what has it really done so far? Moved some keys, moved a door a few times, and now made a girl walk outside and sit down. It doesn’t try to harm her, or kill her or anything – it just makes her walk down some stairs and sit outside. Pretty weak there! I bet this demon is the laughingstock at the annual demon convention…the Evil Dead demons and the guys from Poltergeist laugh him out of the hall.

There’s a quite effective scene where Micah sets up some powder on the floor to try and track the demon’s footprints. It leaves the footprints but then leads them to the attic, where Micah finds a picture of Katie as a little girl at her old house which burned down. This is a good, effective horror scene because it’s so inexplicable and chilling – why would that picture be there? It’s very nature is threatening. For that this scene is very well done.

So the demon is that creepy guy from down the street who used to sit outside your house in a white van because "there was no parking by his house."

Then we get the scene where, even though Micah promised he wouldn’t buy a Ouija board, he does it anyway. His reasoning is that he didn’t buy it, he borrowed it! Ha ha ha! What a card, yet again. Somebody get this guy a spot on Comedy Central. Or maybe a seat in Congress.

"What do you mean I'm a lying jackass?"

So we get some pretty good scenes of them arguing and what not; the scenes where you can see how worn out these two are, and the strain it’s putting on their relationship, are quite effective. They try to call back that exorcist doctor guy, who just tells them he can’t help and leaves. He never shows up again even though he says he wants to try to help – so I guess that’s the culmination of that subplot…that guy was a fuckin’ fraud the whole time.

Then because the movie doesn’t seem to know how to explain things aside from turning to the Internet, we get some more backstory awkwardly shoehorned in: apparently some girl named Diane in the 60s had the exact same thing happen to her that Katie has now. What does this tell us? Let’s play a guessing game:

If you selected Answer C, “Nothing,” well, you win a million bucks and the chance to keep watching the movie! (The million dollars is taken back through taxes to pay for the movie.)

If the past few scenes have seemed entirely pointless to you, well, let’s just cut to the chase…we then get the final scenes where they’re planning to just leave, after everything that’s happened. Katie is despondent and weak, and at the end she decides she doesn’t even want to leave anymore, the demon perhaps finally having control over her mind. So they stay for one final night until Katie gets pulled out of bed by the demon:

Then you get perhaps the greatest horror movie scream in the last twenty years from Katie – I’m serious; it is fucking chilling how good this scream is. It’s completely blood-curdling and insane, and most importantly: we never see anything. For once the camera gimmick pays off, because we never see what’s happening to Katie to make her scream like that – we just use our imagination, and that is scarier than anything they could have put on screen. I think they should have just ended the movie right here. Just fade out and give us the credits right now, you bastards!


Yup, we get an ending with Micah getting thrown at the camera like a drunk game of college football and then Katie comes up and bites his neck like a vampire who’s watched The Grudge too many times. It’s a hundred times scarier than anything that shitty ass movie series could do, but it’s still pretty weak. I remember seeing this ending in theaters and the whole theater burst out laughing at this bit. I mean how lame can you get?

Fortunately for those among you who, like me, thought this ending was horrible, we get an alternate ending. In this one, she wakes up, goes downstairs and screams just like the theater ending. The movie unfortunately still does not end right there. Instead, she comes back up with blood on her and a knife in her hand, because I guess we really needed to see that or else we’d just assume Micah used his super powers to beat the devil out of her. Really, this scene isn’t a horror movie ending – it’s a promo for the next episode of hit internet TV sensation Hot Girls with Knives!

Unfortunately her time in the spotlight is cut short:

So that’s Paranormal Activity. Was it good? Well…yes. Yes it was.

When this first came out, I thought this movie was a joke. I walked out of the theater disappointed. And for a long time, while I acknowledged the impact it had on the horror world, I just scoffed at people who said it was really anything all that scary. But watching it again, all these years later, I do think it’s good. It’s got some pretty silly and lame parts to it, but overall it’s more good than bad. I see why it scares people. The idea of having no control over your body and surrendering to this demon over such a long period of time is pretty scary. And the movie, despite a few lame bits, has some very good scares as well.

Maybe it’s watching this at home that did it – it really seems to work better in that context, surprisingly enough. Very few movies do. While Paranormal Activity has its share of limitations and flaws, it’s a well done flick and has its merits, too. It influenced a whole new generation of direct-to-video “found footage” films and helped to make that style more prominent in the mainstream. With all the garbage in this subgenre right now, it can be hard to find good shit, but I hope people keep doing it. I hope we get some good movies out of this gimmick, because I really think the potential is there.

Hmm, well, I’ve reviewed all the influential modern horror films I can think of. Hostel isn’t worth my time, and I’ve done the main two. I’ll be damned before I review any of the sequels to either this or Saw. So what’s left for my final October review this year?

Of course! The actual most influential modern horror movie of all time! Why didn’t I think of it before?

Images copyright of their original owners.