Paranormal Activity: One Viewer’s Thoughts

Paranormal Activity - Movie Review - Cracked Picture
Shannon Hilson -

At first assessment, Paranormal Activity appears to be little more than the lackluster lovechild of The Blair Witch Project and pretty much every haunted house movie ever made. At the heart of the plot, we have a couple of average, everyday Joes who unwittingly find themselves stuck smack in the middle of a series of spooky, unsettling events. The plot is also brought to life via the same minimalist “mock-umentary” approach viewers are familiar with from their time spent with Blair Witch.

I’m not even going to lie. My initial judgment was: “been there, done that”. I passed on going to see it when it was in the theaters, figuring it would be a waste of my time and money. I rolled my eyes at the reports of how scary it was supposed to be. I added it to my Netflix queue not really expecting much except maybe a minor scare or two. However, I was actually pleasantly surprised for the most part in regards to the way the film itself was put together.

The movie starts off slowly by introducing the viewer to the protagonists, a young couple by the names of Micah and Katie. From our fly-on-the-wall position in their ordinary, everyday San Diego tract home where the film’s events play out, we learn early on that Katie may or may not have been haunted her entire life by a demonic entity. We also find out that boyfriend Micah has not only decided to solve the mystery by setting up a video camera in the couple’s bedroom each night in an attempt to capture anything peculiar that may occur, but doesn’t take the idea of a haunting completely seriously.

Of course, said peculiar things do begin to occur in the way you’d expect in a movie about a haunting – starting with simple occurrences that are easily explained away, but eventually building up to some pretty frightening events. Naturally, everything is always conveniently captured by Micah’s video camera. It all sounds boringly standard and probably also a bit contrived from the outside looking in.

However, what makes Paranormal Activity frightening isn’t the plot, the acting, or the setting. The movie itself is actually very well written and directed by first-time filmmaker Oren Peli. While the ways the mysterious dark entity chooses to manifest are standard and even clichéd (creaky floorboards, ominous footsteps, mysterious messages on a Ouija board, and so forth), the way in which Peli chooses to actually implement these devices is quite skilled.

Night Vision Paranormal ActivityFor one thing, the great majority of the horrific events take place at night in the couple’s bedroom. Most of us think of our bedrooms as the safe place, the one place where we are able to let our guard down enough to be able to sleep, undress, be sexual with our partners, and retreat when we’re vulnerable or ill. It is here that the entity chooses to torment the couple, slamming the door, manipulating the blankets on the bed, and even appearing to possess Katie’s body on a couple of occasions.

The subtle way that this disturbs is highly reminiscent of the way Marion Crane is attacked while showering in Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic Psycho. Who didn’t see Psycho for the first time and wonder if they’d ever be able to take a shower again without wondering what’s on the other side of the curtain in a way that they never worried about before? Paranormal Activity makes the viewer feel a little less safe in their beds in much the same way. Who doesn’t remember hiding under the covers from monsters in the closet as a kid? Suddenly that doesn’t sound like such a good guarantee against demonic attack.

Peli also takes advantage of the point-and-shoot, low budget dynamic he’s working with, exploiting it to the fullest and turning it into a valuable tool in the same way that made The Blair Witch Project successful. However, while Blair Witch used our own imaginations against us by not actually allowing us to visually absorb anything horrific or disturbing, Paranormal Activity actually does let us see a thing or two once or twice over the course of the film… but since we don’t expect even basic special effects from something that takes the form of “found footage”, they shock us all the more.

When I put on this DVD, I didn’t expect to see anyone physically dragged out of bed by the foot or to see anyone showing me that they’re possessed by walking in that eerie, skippy kind of way that they sometimes do in higher budget horror films. However, these effects don’t feel like over-the-top Hollywood devices when seen as part of Micah’s home movies. For the most part, they feel… real. They certainly wind up coming across as things that could actually happen and, more importantly, like things that could happen to you.

Katie from Paranormal ActivityGranted the movie is not perfect. For instance, I honestly feel like the building of the backstory of Micah and Katie could have been a little less repetitive. I mean… how many times do I really need to hear Micah beg Katie to let him film them having sex before I get the message that they’re a close couple and that Micah is one of those guys who loves to film anything and everything? Then there were what felt like completely unnecessary scenes in the beginning of them swimming in the pool, sitting around talking to their friends, and so forth. Because of some of this, I felt the movie was a bit slow to start.

However, I also felt that the rest of the movie was worth waiting for it to get started. Paranormal Activity is familiar to horror movie fans in a number of ways, but it also offers us familiar scares in regards to things that go bump in the night via a package that is subtly different than anything we’ve seen before. It’s definitely well worth seeing.

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