Original Release Date: October 16, 2009
Run Time: 86 minutes
Editor’s Note: Every so often, a couple of our writers will decide they want to review the same movie at the same time. When this happens, we combine the two reviews into one mega-review, and offer you the two potentially-differing opinions as a “Factor/CounterFactor” special event. Staff Writers Greg and Luke both recently reviewed Paranormal Activity, so here are their thoughts presented side-by-side. Luke’s comments are reported in green; Greg’s comments are reported in blue. Enjoy the double-dose!
GREG: After the release and the surprising success of “The Blair Witch Project” in 1999, I expected a slew of horror movies to hit the screens featuring actors as the “directors” of sorts, recording some struggle against an unknown nemesis from a personal perspective. Maybe the movie industry thought it was too radical of an idea, because I can only think of a handful of movies that attempted this, with most having failed to connect with audiences or to even make it to the big screen.
It wasn’t until 2009 that a tiny little film sprang from the depths of some demented mind and freaked out audiences across the country – and all for a mere $15,000.
LUKE: Paranormal Activity was that low-budget, do-it-yourself horror film success story: made for the aforementioned paltry $15,000 or so, it found a receptive audience and grossed $108 million. Go back and read that again, I’ll wait. Your job probably doesn’t pay that well, and if it does, thanks for reading, Mr. Buffett!
In Paranormal Activity, Micah and Katie move into a two-story starter home in a quiet residential area of San Diego. Knockings and strange voices can be heard throughout the house soon after the couple settles in. After a few days of this, Katie finally tells Micah that she thinks something may be following her, something that started when she was a child. Intrigued, Micah decides that he wants to try his hand at capturing these strange events on film. Probably not a good idea, messing with unknown entities, especially when Katie seems to be the target of the increasingly violent activity.
Soon, the couple hires a psychic to help them investigate. The psychic, like every other psychic who’s ever existed or ever will exist, provides no help at all except to advise the couple to call a demonologist and not try to confront the monster themselves. You can guess what happens next: they ignore the psychic’s advice, Micah invites the demon to do its worst, and over the course of the next couple weeks, it does. Maybe that’s a spoiler, but we’re talking about a horror movie here. They’re not going to agree to a truce and all go out for frosty chocolate milkshakes.
Let’s see what the numbers hold in store for us:
G: General Entertainment – I found the pacing to be perfect, slow-moving with little bits of increasing activity and tension, building to the horrific final scene. The idea of hunting ghosts or spirits is very popular on TV nowadays, with ghost hunters, adventurers, paranormal police, and so on; the idea in this film of showing the hunt from the perspective of the video camera adds a new twist to the genre. Rather than watching Micah as he’s filmed walking around with a camera, we get to see the world through his camera as their quiet home is turned inside out. We become active participants in the hunt. 9/10
I’m tempted to dock points here just because of how angry I was by the end of the movie. Really, there’s only so long I can watch a person taunt a mysterious, possibly supernatural entity that’s clearly mean-spirited, if not outright hostile. On the other hand, I don’t go to movies to watch smart people doing smart things—if I wanted that, I’d hire a documentary crew to follow me around all day. What brings us to horror movies is the scares, and Paranormal Activity serves up some genuinely creepy stuff alongside old horror standbys like Ouija boards and quick jumps. 7/10
A: Actuality – I thought the actors, Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston (whose on-screen characters share their same first names), worked well together — he as the boyfriend who thinks it would be fun to try capturing proof of the paranormal, and she as the dutiful girlfriend who grudgingly agrees at first. Their banter back and forth never seems forced or scripted, and it was easy to imagine them as a real couple. Katie also brought one heck of a creepy performance to the screen. Watching the events of the film take their toll on her character, her slow transformation (or is it a possession?) made me feel sorry for her and scared of her at the same time. 8/10
My biggest problem, if I haven’t made it clear yet, is that I feel like Micah spends the entire movie being a jackass. Not that there aren’t jackasses in the world, but he maintains his obnoxiousness for so long that by the end, I was cheering for the monster. I’m guessing that’s not what the filmmakers wanted. Story-wise, his skepticism is really only there to keep the pair in the house so more scary stuff can happen—the filmmakers didn’t do anything to earn his wild and inconsistent swings between skepticism and credulity. Katie is a complete blank slate—even though she’s more affected by the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, especially at the end of the film, and she spends more time on screen than Micah, we don’t really learn a lot about her or get much reason to care what happens to her. Even though they may complement each other, there are your protagonists, folks: annoying and boring. 3/10
S: Story – For a story based on things that don’t actually exist, most of the movie actually does a good job of making things seem real. The incidental, unexplained bumps in the night are relatable and draw the audience in, setting us up for the supernatural stuff later. Unfortunately, like so many horror movies, the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY loses its effect once we know exactly what’s going on. And even though it looks like the movie violates the old storytelling rule of “show, don’t tell”, it turns out to be a good decision – I’d much rather be told the explanation than see a cheesy, low-budget rubber suit. 6/10
Does the story make sense? For the most part, yes. It doesn’t veer too far from a classic tale of a haunting. How Micah goes about his investigation – spreading baby powder over the hall floors to catch footprints, stringing fishing line with bells at the center across walkways to detect any movement from a spirit – are nice touches. But a few times, the story dips back into already-covered territory; much like Luke mentioned above, Micah tends to act like the typical boyfriend found in almost every horror movie, ignoring what everyone tells him and acting like a jerk toward his girlfriend as the film rolls on. Also, I would have liked a bit more information about the entity and its relation to Katie, especially after a pivotal scene involving a charred childhood picture of her that Micah finds in the attic. It’s a perfect opportunity to delve more into her past, but it slides right on by. 6/10
P: Presentation – Again, good scary stuff here. The filmmakers clearly subscribed to the idea that the unknown is scarier than anything that’s known, so we the audience never actually see what’s terrorizing our plucky-if-slightly-really-stupid couple. The “found footage” angle works to great effect in the early scenes—we see what happens before the characters do, leading to some truly great “holy s#!t” moments as Micah finds out what his girlfriend is doing while he’s sleeping. The effect stays around until the endgame, once the audience has been beaten about the head with the obvious explanation for everything. Still, before the inevitable letdown, my wife and I had to make a pact to never interfere with each other’s sleep. That’s relatable horror, folks! 8/10
Director Oren Peli and his crew provided some great special effects. Yes, there are the strange noises, growls, knocking on doors and such: the pre-requisites for any ghostly tale. What makes Paranormal Activity stand out is the reliance on a handheld camera, as mentioned earlier. It’s this perspective change, forcing the audience to see and hear only what the camera can capture, along with confining all the activity to a few rooms within the house that raises the story from something typical to something out of the ordinary. Something else I truly enjoyed about the film was the use of silence. No strings or orchestra to manipulate the mood or the scares. Instead, my own imagination took over, and I found myself lacing my fingers over my eyes a few times or jumping in my seat at the slightest sound. The special effects were fairly minimal, but when they were used – such as a scene with a Ouija board and some of the things Katie has happen to her while asleep – combine with Katie’s creepy performance to create one of the more surprisingly scary films to be released in a few years. 9/10
TOTAL SCORE: 8/10
TOTAL SCORE: 6/10
Paranormal Activity delivers a nice perspective twist on the classic ghost story, providing some decent scares and an intensely creepy performance from Katie Featherston. Just don’t watch the movie right before going to bed.
I’ll second that last bit.