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 …)
Alexis K. says
Trisha, I adore how you say this movie gives you the creeps. That is what it is meant to do, and it succeeds very well by making it all feel so real! I am glad you can see past some of the more cheesy elements to pull out the terror the film offers as well. The low-budget they had and the use of their real names made it a fantastically believable story for people who lack the desire to research ;).
You’re absolutely correct. If Micah were anything other than the prick he was, the film wouldn’t have been a film. The plot would have more so been, yeah time to leave the house, game over. Now obviously, if a demon has an attachment, it has the free roam to follow compared to most spiritual entities, but eventually if Micah believed and cared, it would have found a way to be resolved to some sense.
Great point about California as well. The state is like New York, such a high population if one specialist turns you down, you can find four more in your local grocery store.
George, who graduated the past term, my previous crit partner, his novel was set up as found-footage. I loved how unique it was. Many horror films now take the found-footage route but to read a story that takes it blew me away! I hope he chooses to get it published. I would grab the printed copy in a heartbeat. I have to agree, I have yet to see many other genres capitalize on found-footage, but I think the style only seems to fit well in horror.
Glenna Hartwell says
Trisha, your comment, “I could have gone to Safeway on any given Sunday and come home with a demonologist… ” really made me laugh. You’re right–this did ring false. Micah and Katie could have easily Googled another demonologist. Katie was so terrified hearing that this guy was out of the country (I believe it was for the next two days, not two weeks–I could be wrong, though). It was one of those moments, so familiar to horror movies, where you’re yelling at the screen. The only excuse I can provide for them is they were exhausted from lack of sleep.
I liked the film’s acting and found that Featherston, in particular, made Katie come alive. I didn’t “see her acting.” The moment where she and her girlfriend were beadmaking was so real. I have had “serious girl time” like that. I thought the psychic, though, was a bad actor. But since the entire film budget was $15,000., it was never going to be an A-lister.
One of the other found-footage films I love is Cloverfield, which is a monster movie, not a ghost story. Because the characters are running through the streets of New York City, the camera is much shakier. I’m so glad Micah placed his on a tripod, so we had smooth shots for much of the film.
Most other found-footage films let us know in the beginning that the footage was “found,” thereby telling us that the protagonists are either dead or missing. Paranormal Activity didn’t do that, and I’m glad, as it elevated the suspense. Using a contemporary house added to the fear factor, too. We might expect demonic attacks to happen in a gothic mansion, but not in an everyday home with black leather sofas.
While I didn’t like Micah in this movie, I agree that the movie wouldn’t be the same without him. Nobody wants to read a book or watch a movie where everything goes well. If there isn’t conflict, there isn’t interest.
I found the pacing a little slow, but I was expecting more action and less tension building up. One positive though is that I normally get motion sick from found footage movies, but because the camera was stationary during the nights I was able to get through the movie just fine.
I LOVE that you mention being able to pick up tons of people on the street like a demonologist, because I lived in Seattle and it gave me the same vibe. I feel like in any big city you could walk home with a medium.
Do you know if there are films of the alternate endings? Or could you link to an article that talks about the different options? Because the idea of Katie bashing Micah’s head in with the camera sounds like a better ending to me, I wish that’s happened.
Trisha Slay says
Alexis – OMG I would love to read George’s version of a novel with found footage. I’m a huge fan of epistolary elements in a novel—letters, diary entries, newspaper articles—and the incredible Walter Dean Myers wrote a brilliant novel in screenplay format (Monster) but I’ve never seen anything like what you describe. That is so intriguing!
Maddy – In case you have not seen it yet, Scott posted a discussion with a link that allows you to watch the Theatrical ending side-by-side with the original version and one other alternate ending they were able to film. Sadly, there is no way to watch the “Death By Camera” ending because they couldn’t figure out how to film it. I read about the 3rd unfilmed ending on Wikipedia, but the original source is this Entertainment Weekly online article from October 2009: https://ew.com/article/2009/10/30/paranormal-activity-three-super-scary-alternate-endings-spoiler-alert/
Glenna – I LOVE Cloverfield. It’s probably my favorite “found footage” movie of all time even though it does give me motion sickness. Especially brilliant is the way they have the old taped-over footage break through and we get to see the romantic backstory from a happier time.
Glenna Hartwell says
Trisha, I love that “breakthrough” of the found footage, too! I must have watched that flick at least five times.