Everyone knows the story behind Paranormal Activity by now, but, just in case you just woke up from a coma or are visiting from Nebraska, here’s a the long and short of it. Shot over one week way back in 2007 for the price of a Hyundai Excel, Oren Peli’s shot-on-video shocker traveled the festival circuit until it was picked up by Paramount with the original intent of remaking the film. Ultimately realizing that they couldn’t possibly make the film any scarier than it already was (save for a reshot ending suggested by the bearded one, himself, Steven Spielberg), Paramount began dumping the flick into a handful of theaters where positive buzz and a unique marketing campaign turned the film into a full-blown phenomenon, shattering box-office records, and sending the Peli’s little movie well on its way toward becoming one of the most profitable films in motion picture history.
Paranormal Activity is the romantic story of a boy, a girl, and the demonic entity that comes between them. When we are first introduced to Katie (the impossibly cute Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat), we learn that Katie’s had something of a history of paranormal experiences, and, recently, she’s been experiencing said phenomena in the couple’s suburban San Diego digs. Micah, always willing to do anything that involves buying electronic devices, procures an HD camera and sets it up in the couple’s bedroom so that he can record them as they sleep and, hopefully, catch something on camera. Pretty soon, however, Micah’s documenting everything, including a meeting with a psychic who feels that Katie is being pursued by a demonic presence; one that’s followed her throughout her life. While this, of course, scares Katie silly, Micah finds it all very entertaining, and suggests that they communicate with the unseen being to see what it wants. The psychic warns him that doing so could cause Katie irreparable harm, but, stubborn man that he is, Micah employs a Ouija board to make contact with the being anyway, and…well…all hell breaks loose.
Much like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity is a vérité style “found footage” flick that mostly depends on the hysteria generated by its characters to scare its audience. Early on, nothing all that frightening happens. There are doors opening and closing, lights flickering, and chandeliers swinging. Katie and Micah treat these like funhouse scares, mulling over the footage the morning after and laughing about it. Later, however, as the demonic presence grows more powerful, so do its “attacks”, resulting in some truly nerve-shattering scares that build up to a finale that is forever burned into my psyche. Cripes, my skin’s crawling just thinking about it.
Sadly, Paranormal Activity only really works when the lights go out. Once these characters are exposed to daylight, however, they reveal themselves for the lunkheaded cartoon characters they really are, especially Micah, who, reminds me of the sort of jackass who rocks the gondolas on Ferris wheels just to make his fellow passengers cry. Katie’s not much better as she doesn’t do much more than express mild displeasure with Micah in regards to his infantile ways, despite the fact that, with every passing day, his actions make things progressively worse for her. Why does Katie even listen to Micah, anyway? He’s a day trader, not an occultist! Throughout the entire film he repeatedly prevents Katie from seeking out genuine help, instead insisting that it’s “his house” and he’s going to take care of this “demon problem” as though he were dealing with a leaky roof or a clogged toilet. His idea of taking care of things is snickering while he gives Katie demon advice from what looks like a Dungeons and Dragons Bestiary he picked up at a yard sale. The guy’s a tool, and the only mystery bigger than why it is Katie stays with him is why she chooses to stay in the house at all.
Okay; I realize the “rules” are established early on (leaving the house won’t help Katie as the beastie will just turn up again somewhere down the road), but it still makes no sense as to why they don’t just pack up and leave. The psychic clearly states that the demon will eventually find her again. Eventually! That means later. Maybe weeks, months, even years down the road. So why not err on the side of caution and go camp out in a church or at the local Holiday Inn? Maybe do some traveling? Who knows? Maybe the demon will get sick of chasing around after her and go try to possess someone else! But no, they go to bed every night (and somehow even manage to fall asleep!), experience something that would make any sane person run off screaming into the night, and get up the next day and giggle about it with their friends. By the time they finally decide to leave, things have gotten so bad that Katie’s practically catatonic. So what does Micah do? He takes her upstairs for a nap, of course! Why?! Why not let her sleep in the fucking car on the way to the hospital as that’s obviously where she needs to be? Why take her back to the same bedroom where she was manhandled by an invisible assailant the night before? The film is positively teeming with infuriating logic lapses and inconsistencies such as this, but, then again, if the characters behaved like actual people, the film would be fifteen minutes long.
Paranormal Activity is at once one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen and one of the most brainless. Take away all of the daft exposition and it’s really just a gimmicky experience flick, but here the gimmick works and the experience is nothing short of harrowing. Of course, whether or not Paranormal Activity will scare you ultimately hinges on your beliefs. If you’re an atheist or hopeless skeptic, you’ll probably spend the entire movie looking at your watch and wondering what in the hell everyone else is so riled up about. If, on the other hand, you’re a lapsed Catholic with a guilt complex (like me), this flick will most assuredly scare the pants off of you, and likely haunt you for days, if not weeks, after.