Word on the street is that after seeing Paranormal Activity, Steven Spielberg returned to the studio with the DVD in a trash bag. He claimed the door to his bedroom locked by itself after he watched the film. Was it the ghost of Orson Welles, still upset over Spielberg’s adaptation of War of the Worlds?
Truthfully, I would be more scared of Welles’ glowering specter than Paranormal Activity.
One of the latest horror film to hit theaters, Paranormal Activity centers around a young couple, Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat), who are struggling with relationship problems. Not with each other, but with the ghost that seems to have followed Katie since childhood. Tech-happy Micah sees it as the perfect excuse to invest in a high-end video camera and record their bedroom at night.
The film, shot home-video style, follows the couple as the bumps in the night go from swishing doors to burning Ouiji boards to an all-out demonic frenzy.
Yet Paranormal Activity is all foreplay. It’s a sardonic, effective buildup but the main event — when the ghostie decides to stop faffing about and get down to business — just sort of fizzles. This is disappointing, considering how effective the original buildup is.
Director Oren Peli is at his best with the nighttime scenes. He taps into a potent fear — what happens when we are asleep, completely unaware and defenseless. Each creak and shadow carries a menace. Every night is like a roller coaster, carefully tailored to build and dip, with each night growing longer and each encounter more dangerous.
But other plot elements, while intended to be creepy, turn to silliness after a few moments of cognizant thought. For example, Micah finds a picture of Katie in the attic above their bed. Did it just fall out of the demon’s wallet? But to Paranormal Activity’s credit, the event is creepy in the moment. It’s after the scene that reality kicks in.
While the characters were supposed to be organic and natural, they are not always convincing or likeable. Micah is unlikable from the get-go. While his cockiness is understandable at first, he would have to have a cheesesteak for a brain not to be freaked out sooner. As the film goes on, the real mystery is not our ghostie, but why Katie still lives with this mook who puts her in danger by calling out the demon.
Katie is usually more believable and quite pitiable. She has the lungs of a horror champ and skillfully moves from anger to terror. She and Sloat do have genuine chemistry that comes through far better in the horror parts than the connecting daytime parts.
In fact, the divide is a major buzzkill of the film. When things stay in the bedroom, it’s creepy and decently acted. When things aren’t going bump in the night, the acting borders on cringe-worthy. Perhaps improvising is easier when the leading emotions are fear. Borrowing from The Blair Witch Project, the film never had a script — Peli would outline a scene and let the actors take it from there.
The film has several pools for potential creepy and should have dipped into them more. For instance, in most films, the ghost is just defending its cave. No matter how bad things get, the protagonist can always just leave (barring an overdone plot twist).
But in Paranormal Activity, the spirit is attached to Katie, not the house. No matter how far she runs, it will follow. Thus, the film could have done far more with the daytime scenes. As it is, the only daylight terror is the home’s Ikea invasion. What few story elements the film tries to introduce, such as Katie’s past, could be far more potent.
Paramount has tried hard with a sleeper-hit marketing campaign. The company ran Internet polls to find audience interest and based screenings accordingly. Now, the Internet interest abuzz, the film is opening wide. But it was not always so. Originally, Spielberg did not even want to use Peli’s film, but instead create a Hollywood remake that Peli could direct. Only after a test screening did they decide to stick with the original.
Remember, while marketing plants might clamor that Spielberg thought the DVD was cursed, Spielberg never said anything about the film actually scaring him.
Paranormal Activity is not the worst horror movie to come out this year. It’s not even bad. But the people who say they lost sleep over it most likely did not get enough Wes Craven in their childhoods.