Paranormal Activity

Movie Information

The Story: Observations on a young woman who is at the mercy of a demon that's haunted her since childhood. The Lowdown: A slow-moving, low-budget affair that succeeds in being creepy without quite being terrifying.
Score:

Genre: DIY Horror
Director: Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs, Ashley Palmer
Rated: R

Is Paranormal Activity the scariest movie ever made? Does it show us the new face of horror? Is Oren Peli this year’s new “savior of the horror movie?” No, no and no. Even on the sliding scale of cutting the movie some slack for being made on an $11,000 or $15,000 budget (both figures have been reported), I can’t call it more than a partially effective work that’s been wildly overpraised—often by people who see enough horror pictures to know better. I like the fact that it derailed the seasonal Saw juggernaut by coming in at number one on the opening weekend of Saw VI, but I’d be more impressed by that feat if I didn’t feel that it got there mostly on hype—and I won’t be sold on the staying power of its lead till after Halloween.

Paranormal Activity is, however, an accomplishment. Any do-it-yourself movie that makes it all the way to a finished product is that much, but one that turns an almost nonexistent budget into passable entertainment is something more—regardless how much of a stunt the whole thing is. And make no mistake: Paranormal Activity is a stunt. It cashes in on its very cheapness by going the route of The Blair Witch Project (1999) and pretending that what we’re seeing is found footage of something that really happened. I freely concede, however, that it’s a better, creepier, more entertaining and watchable film than Blair Witch, but then so are the collected works of Ed Wood.

The film is a bare-bones affair, as you might expect. It has little actual story, and merely details a series of events. The events are the haunting of a woman named Katie (Katie Featherston), who has been pursued—or at least observed—by a demon from the age of 8. The film charts what happens when her boyfriend, Micah (Micah Sloat), attempts to get to the bottom of this by setting up a video surveillance camera in their bedroom to see what goes on while they sleep.

Now that sounds a lot duller than it is—especially considering that not much happens for a fairly long time—because the film wisely doesn’t limit itself to this surveillance footage. This is filled out by home-movie footage of the couple—along with some friends and the odd psychic expert—talking about what’s happening. To accomplish this, the film turns Micah into an increasingly obsessed would-be documentarian—an aspect of the film that has caused it to be taken as a dig at our narcissistic fixation with detailing our every movement via things like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. It’s an interesting reading, but I’m unconvinced the social critique was intentional. It seems more likely that this is merely recycling the kind of growing obsession of the hero we’ve seen for years in movies like Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943).

Not surprisingly, the non-surveillance footage has the downside of meaning lots and lots of shaky-cam camerawork, but at least it’s the kind of shaky camerawork that tries to be as steady as possible, which is far less annoying and far more believable. Then too, since Micah is in many of these shots, the camera has to be put in a stationary position a good deal of the time. It’s also worth noting that the movie cheats on a few occasions by either using shots that it’s unlikely Micah could be shooting, or by having Katie man the camera, which is out of character with her overall attitude about the experiment.

Reservations aside, Paranormal Activity works better than it has any right to. It helps that the two leads are reasonably credible actors and are able to engage our sympathy to some degree. That their dialogue manages to sound real without being mind-numbingly boring is also in its favor. But what really makes the movie work is its increasing sense of dread. By the ending—even when you can predict what’s going to happen—it has amassed a credible sense of creepiness that is held in place by the lack of a credits roll, leaving the viewer staring at a dark screen. Did it terrify me? No. But it did creep me out. The only thing that terrified me was Paramount’s decision to trim Peli’s original ending in order to leave the proceedings open to a sequel. Now, that may give me nightmares. Rated R for language.

SHARE
About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

14 thoughts on “Paranormal Activity

  1. little_nell

    I am a weenie when it comes to scary movies. I wasn’t that scared in this movie, Blair Witch scared me much more. I was a little disappointed.
    I heard a short interview, on Sirius, with the creator. That was his house and he still lives there. Now that’s a cheap set! Gotta give him credit!

  2. So, let me get this all straight in my head here.

    The movie isn’t that great, it is mostly over hyped. OK, so that could easily describe almost any mainstream Hollywood film – even the “good” ones that people just love (looking at you, Quentin).

    Speaking of that, when an established film maker pays homage (read: blatantly steals material from older, and better, sources) he is widely praised for being a genius. But, should some schmuck who never went to film school do the same thing he is “merely recycling” past cliche. Because, after all, he cannot possibly be saying anything new or making commentary with his film – he never went to school! How would he know how to be creative like that?

    So, the movie isn’t as good as it has been said yet it isn’t terrible and it isn’t scary but it is creepy and the camera work is shaky but not really and there’s a lot of it but only when the camera isn’t stationary, which is also a good deal of the time and…

    I give up.

  3. Ken Hanke

    The movie isn’t that great, it is mostly over hyped. OK, so that could easily describe almost any mainstream Hollywood film

    There are relative levels of overhyped. This one rings the silver gong of the universe.

    But, should some schmuck who never went to film school do the same thing he is “merely recycling” past cliche. Because, after all, he cannot possibly be saying anything new or making commentary with his film – he never went to school!

    Film school’s got nuthin’ to do with it — at least as far as I’m concerned. Very few filmmakers that impress me went to film school. But there is a difference between deliberately evoking something and just copying or recycling or ripping off.

    So, the movie isn’t as good as it has been said yet it isn’t terrible and it isn’t scary but it is creepy and the camera work is shaky but not really and there’s a lot of it but only when the camera isn’t stationary, which is also a good deal of the time and…

    Pretty much.

  4. [b]there [i]is[/i] a difference between deliberately evoking something and just copying or recycling or ripping off.[/b]

    I think that might be a highly subjective distinction to make. How fine is the line between “evoking” and “recycling?” For me, I don’t think that Quentin Tarantino has yet actually made a movie of his own: he has merely cut and pasted very broad genre ideas into very broad genre movies. While I might admit that he does have a certain technical talent in doing so, I cannot hold him up to the level that many people in the film world do.

    I can also admit that he has a pretty good knack for writing dialogue – which is completely strange since I have never heard him say anything remotely intelligent any time I have seen him on TV.

    I’m still confused about what the problem with the camera movement is. I thought the camera stuff in Blair Witch was effective (of course, it was part and parcel with how the movie was shot – it wasn’t a forced effect although it might have been a planned contrivance). However, I mostly think that people who put a camera on a monkey’s head and then feed it (the monkey, not the camera) full of cocaine and show it the zoom button should never again receive a single dollar from anyone to make anything more than a car commercial. Ever.

    Oh, I totally agree with you on the hype thing. I have heard from several people (who are an infinite number of levels below me on the film geek scale, as I am an infinite number of levels below you) that the film was nowhere near as good as they were led to believe. I am just waiting for some intrepid journalist to figure out that the entire “one million votes to get this movie released” thing was unmitigated BS and a marketing gimmick.

    I am also awaiting an essay or a book from you on the fine art of film criticism, especially inre: the subtle difference between paying homage and blatantly ripping off the source material.

  5. Ken Hanke

    I think that might be a highly subjective distinction to make. How fine is the line between “evoking” and “recycling?”

    Well, all this stuff is really subjective when it comes down to it — and if you don’t start from the premise that there is a difference, you’ve already decided against it. For me, the most immediate and obvious difference is that the homage is done by folks who intend you to recognize the source, while the recycling is done by folks who hope you won’t.

    For me, I don’t think that Quentin Tarantino has yet actually made a movie of his own: he has merely cut and pasted very broad genre ideas into very broad genre movies.

    I’m not even sure I’d argue with you on this point, though for me he sometimes does it with a sufficiency of post-modern panache that I’m more than good with it. I’d also suggest that it’s barely possible that he — at least sometimes — so filters things through his own sensibilities that it becomes his own.

    I cannot hold him up to the level that many people in the film world do.

    I have yet to figure out what level I put him on, which, in itself, I find interesting.

    I’m still confused about what the problem with the camera movement is. I thought the camera stuff in Blair Witch was effective (of course, it was part and parcel with how the movie was shot – it wasn’t a forced effect although it might have been a planned contrivance).

    Well, we have to start here from an understanding that I think Blair Witch is one of the worst and most irritating films ever made. The inherent problem for me with shaky-cam is that it tends to exaggerate the shakiness. No one with a serious interest in — or knowledge of — filmmaking is going to be so inept as to produce hand-held footage like that. There’s a lot of hand-held camera work in movies of the last 50 years and the real deal (not that trying to look “real” by being shaky) is that the real deal attempts to be as steady as possible.

    I am just waiting for some intrepid journalist to figure out that the entire “one million votes to get this movie released” thing was unmitigated BS and a marketing gimmick.

    I’m waiting for someone to charge the media with complicity for buying into any of this for five seconds.

    I am also awaiting an essay or a book from you on the fine art of film criticism, especially inre: the subtle difference between paying homage and blatantly ripping off the source material

    If I had the time to do that, I’m afraid there’d be a few books that would happen first.

  6. Well, having not seen Blair Witch since its theater run, I cannot really say this with any certainty but isn’t part of the overall build up of the film the fact that the camera work gets worse and worse as the characters get more and more frightened?

    If unintended, then just a a king hell coincidence. if intended, then brilliant.

    Again, I can’t really remember if this is the case and I honestly don’t want to sit through it again to find out. Maybe someone else will….

    I also don’t remember how Cloverfield was put together, either – but my problem with that film was “why didn’t they take the camera from the annoying guy and give him to the monster early on?”

    And, finally, for recycling/evoking – um, I’m gonna cop out and say that I’d like to take a class on film appreciation before going toe-to-toe with you on this.

    Or, at least, I’d like to watch at least a tenth as many movies as you.

    (still haven’t watched Timecrimes and you mentioned it about a month ago here).

  7. Ken Hanke

    Well, having not seen Blair Witch since its theater run, I cannot really say this with any certainty but isn’t part of the overall build up of the film the fact that the camera work gets worse and worse as the characters get more and more frightened?

    I haven’t seen it since you have and my memory isn’t necessarily more reliable, but as I recall it the camerawork is bad from the onset, though it may well get worse as the film progresses. I will not be researching this, however, because of all the movies I will never see again, this one is rightt on up there. (My dislike of the film is not limited to its camerawork.)

    I also don’t remember how Cloverfield was put together, either – but my problem with that film was “why didn’t they take the camera from the annoying guy and give him to the monster early on?”

    My take was that they should have all been given to the monster about 10 minutes in.

    Or, at least, I’d like to watch at least a tenth as many movies as you.

    Well, that’s got a built-in downside (apart from the obvious) in that the more you see, the more you’ll probably start to feel that the history of movies is the story of guys stealing from each other. Post-modern movies didn’t start this, they just did it openly in a more media-savvy society.

  8. jeff turner

    i could make a similar low cost movie at the urtv studio A..
    ..lets say less than 1500.00 dollars
    this movie wasnt that scary
    did you know that i was once married to the devils sister..
    .that was scary,,,
    she loved to eat out.her favorite place was called Cafe’ on the Lake of Fire
    i have to say she was real involved in energy conservation,,
    instead of driving her hummer she just flew on her broom..

    i guess im saying it was comical to me,,.
    .and theyre laughing
    all the way to the bank

  9. Ben

    Do you think the film is intentionally an allegory for how we take on the personal demons of our significant other, videotape it, review it, obsess over it, try to “figure it out”, and ultimately become consumed by it or is it accidental?

  10. Ken Hanke

    Do you think the film is intentionally an allegory for how we take on the personal demons of our significant other, videotape it, review it, obsess over it, try to “figure it out”, and ultimately become consumed by it or is it accidental?

    That’s actually a fascinating reading of the film, but I have no idea if it was intentional — or if it has even occurred to the filmmaker. (And that wouldn’t necessarily invalidate the reading in any case.) The film doesn’t strike me as that smart, but I could be wrong.

  11. Todd Ford

    “Do you think the film is intentionally an allegory for how we take on the personal demons of our significant other, videotape it, review it, obsess over it, try to ‘figure it out’, and ultimately become consumed by it or is it accidental?”

    That’s interesting. If you Google on “Paranormal Activity Allegory,” you get a number of interpretations, all of them fairly well reasoned. There is my reading of the movie as a domestic abuse allegory. There is That Fuzzy Bastard’s reading as an allegory about new parenthood and its fears. Then there is Dana Stevens’ reading as an allegory for the credit crisis. And now this.

    I think what this all demonstrates is that horror films are exceptionally open to interpretation. As Robin Wood pointed out, reading them is all about determining what the monster represents. They are really more fascinating than most people give them credit.

  12. Movie Boob

    This is the most overrated film of 2009 and a good example of how powerful viral marketing can be. What made this film work and other similarly marketed films such as “Snakes on the Plane” flop is the super low budget hand held cam scary movie factor. People will give horror movies shot in “pseudo-documentary” fashion a pass more often than not. If you look at old exploitation type horror like Last House on the Left, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc.. they may not have been shot on a consumer video cam but they had the “feel” of a rather voyeuristic snuff film. People equate this sort of thing with realism.

Leave a Reply