What is there to say about the original 2007 Paranormal Activity movie that hasn’t already been said? Let’s start here. I love this movie. It scared the bejesus out of me in 2007 and it still gives me the creeps today. But let’s be very clear. This is not a ghost story or a haunted house story. It’s a demon possession story. Demons are not my favorite cup of creepy. In fact, I’m annoyed when demonology gets lumped into haunted house lore. And yet this movie works for me on so many levels.
In case you’ve been living in your backyard bunker wrapped in tin-foil for 13+ years, I’ll set the stage.
Paranormal Activity is a “found footage” horror movie. It’s the brainchild and first film by Oren Peli who is attributed with pretty much ALL the film credits other than acting—writer, director, producer, cinematographer, and editor. The two leading actors are Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat. (Side Note: Using their real names as character names. Who would agree to do that? Especially in a demon horror film? Not me. Never in a million years!)
The film opens with none of the normal cinematic conventions or opening music. Just a simple thank you to the families of Katie and Micah before we are watching through the lens of Micah’s camera as Katie pulls into the driveway.
Katie and Micah are a young couple living together in San Diego, California. Following some strange occurrences in their home, Micah buys this expensive camera and quickly becomes obsessed with capturing and examining the unexplained phenomena as it escalates. For most of the film, the camera is on a tripod set up at the foot of the couple’s bed and we are a silent witness to everything that unfolds during the night while the couple’s eyes are closed. As we watch, the nights get progressively more weird, and the couple bickers over what to do about the situation. I won’t get much deeper into the details because that belies the power of this film.
Spoiler alert: It doesn’t end with a happily ever after.
I’ve read several negative reviews of the film that decry Micah’s hard-headed refusal to listen to Katie’s warnings and fears. All I’ll say about that is that if Micah had been a kind, sensitive, acquiescent partner, we wouldn’t have this movie. Or rather, it would not make any sense to pretend this is found footage from his dogged, ill-fated investigation. I don’t love Micah either, and I particularly despise his introduction of a Ouija board to this paranormal powder keg, but his personality flaws work perfectly in the context of the story. As for Katie, she feels real. This isn’t an academy award-worthy performance, but her interactions with Micah feel natural for the most part. Until things turn unnatural.
This is a film of expectation. It includes long periods of waiting and tense silence punctuated by short bursts of action. I didn’t find that tedious; I found it fascinating. My eyes kept scanning the shadows looking for hidden movement. I was never bored.
Am I going to hold up Paranormal Activity as sheer perfection? No. There are a few storytelling flaws. I’m not referring to the expected flaws endemic in found footage. There are a couple of niggling thorns that irritated me enough to pull me out of the story:
- Early on, a psychic expert visits the house and advises Katie to consult a particular demonologist he recommends. After arguing back and forth for most of the film, Katie finally takes a stand and calls the demonologist … but he’s unavailable for a few weeks so she gives up on that idea. What!?!?! Oh, come on. This is California. I lived in California from 2000 – 2008. I could have gone to Safeway on any given Sunday and come home with a demonologist plus a psychic medium, a Santeria priestess, at least three Wiccan witches with bags full of white sage smudge wands, and a whole busload of reiki healers. Of course, the demonologist cannot make an appearance or we have a very different movie. I would have preferred for Katie to set an appointment for next Tuesday, then everything goes to hell on Monday night. That would have made more sense and served the dual purpose of giving the characters (and the audience) a false sense of relief that the solution was in the works and the cavalry was on the way. And then BAM.
- Speaking of the bam, the ending is not quite right. A little research told me it isn’t the original ending. In fact, there were three alternate possible endings once the film was acquired by Paramount. Reportedly, one of the alternate endings featured Katie wielding the camera to beat Micah to death. Now that would have been the PERFECT ending. Apparently, the post-production folks could not figure out how to make it work from a technical standpoint. Understandable, but I sure wish they could have found a way to get there.
Still, despite the flaws and imperfections, this is a scary little gem of a horror movie. As an avid fan and author of epistolary fiction, found footage would appeal to me in just about any genre, but it works particularly well with elements of suspense and terror. That’s probably why there’s a plethora of horror movies using this technique. Among the surfeit of shaky camera work and snot-nosed hysterical reactions, Paranormal Activity stands out as ingenious in its raw simplicity.
Another Side Note: I wish there were more found footage productions for other types of movies. I can’t understand why so few indie filmmakers are exploring the possibilities. Old home movies that tell a romantic star-crossed love story. Bodycam footage that uncovers an international conspiracy. Go Pro footage that shows a man-against-nature survival story. (Not to mention, coming-of-age in the summer of 1977 with a Super 8 camera in hand. Oh wait …)