Movie Review: Paranormal Activity

As reserved as I tend to be going into horror films—in my opinion they exist for comedy, nothing more—I must admit that I was a bit excited to see Paranormal Activity. I missed it in theaters, and had plenty of rave reviews from friends, acquaintances, and of course, those lucky little buggers who count themselves as professionals in this whole review business. The message I was delivered? This one will genuinely shock. Bloody-disgusting even went so far as to call this “one of the scariest movies of all time.”

In that, I must say, I was grossly misinformed.

The story, told in documentarian style, tells the story of Katie and Micah, a couple living in the suburbs of San Diego. Katie claims a paranormal presence has been following her since childhood, and the dismissive Micah buys a camera and sets out to prove her wrong. After a series of increasingly physical events, they realize that they are indeed haunted—and as one psychic claims, it may not be a ghosts. They may be dealing with a demon. Several potential endings follow, so pick whichever you like at your leisure, though the official theater version leaves an open door for a sequel, which Paramount Pictures claims they just might make use of.

Fairly standard plot. Haunted girl. Disbelieving boyfriend. Warnings abound, but their own in-fighting leads to their self-destruction and downfall. This isn’t one for happy endings, though the theater version does stick to your traditional horror shtick—(spoiler!)—our bad guy makes off, and dear Katie isn’t found. Oh tragedy—we’ll have to hunt them in the next one. But wait—this was a documentary, wasn’t it? How would…oh dear, don’t go all Blair Witch 2 on us.

Nevertheless, let’s address the main point of a horror film—to scare. Despite everyone yelling shock value in my ears, this movie just didn’t do it for me. It manages to avoid the cliché’d blood-in-place-of-terror style of most American horror, but it doesn’t reach the J-horror excellence of psychological terror, either. Many of the scares are still cheap and predictable, with others relying on our very human dread of what is going on off-camera. Nothing strikes me as particularly shocking or dramatic.

Still, the style is commendable. More movies seem to be testing out this whole documentary craze of late (Ala: Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, etc.), but Paranormal Activity does it well. The movie is grounded deeply in the characters, and the exploration of Katie and Micah’s relationship is commendable—it makes us feel grounded in the characters, and they are generally entertaining. Especially Micah. He can be quite an asshole (also see: Dumbass) in his shining moments. The dialogue is well-written and the characters are generally believable.

But when the movie finished, I couldn’t help feeling that I was missing something. That there should have been more. I was somewhat unsatisfied—some scenes could have been expanded, and especially the bits about the prior history of this evil entity. Bring the girl’s family in. Old friends. Surely they have something to add on the being’s note. We also needed more of a shock to the system, I think. While it was interesting to watch their tormentor’s hold on reality grow, a slow, gradual increase of expense, I couldn’t help but feel that this steady incline almost aided in the disarmament of fear. Every step their tormentor took was baby steps—we weren’t likely to be startled from one to the next. I also found the ending extremely unsatisfying.

Ooo, off-screen shuffle-shuffle. Lots of screaming. Ooo, look—a demon! Oh—wait, why are we fading to black? Text!? You give me text? Never found…oh no. And now I dread the next Blair Witch. I recognize they could give a decent sequel, but I’m also inclined to say they won’t. After all, this movie was a documentary—how would you, lest we simply jump to new characters in a new (but strikingly similar) situation? It would lose something, and our investment in character would be for naught, and then, you would also lose the new quality of the original. It would just feel like a re-envisioning of the first—old news, to be sure.

The movie isn’t bad, it just falls short in the same manner that consumes so many. Hyped to the heavens, it has nowhere left to go but down.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

~ by Chris G. on January 13, 2010.

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