Paranormal Activity (2009)

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By Matt DeReno

A young couple Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) believe their trendy place is haunted and go about filming it with a video camera. Well, I should clarify that she—the ingenue, Katie—is haunted by a demon. It is not necessarily their comfy two-story San Diego home, which does not seem too scary as it is both too new and too comfortable to strike any sort of creepy haunted house chord. Rather the demon haunts her. It follows her. It torments her when she sleeps. It lives in the home with them. She is the focus of the haunting—In that regard, the demon is not unlike an unwanted in-law!

Why does the stubborn demon do this? We learn clues through the “found footage” of a home video, which is the prop to tell this story, but this part is never fully revealed. The drama lies in discovering if Katie will be able to overcome her demon, somehow not so much in discovering why it happened. But, as we have a video recording found after the so-called fact, we can only surmise it does not turn out well for Katie and Micah.

I am not that familiar with the difference between “demons” and “ghosts” insofar as they appear in movies. It seems to me that a demon—much like a personal demon—such as alcoholism—can follow someone around their whole life, and that battles with demons are, in a sense, personal battles and can be metaphorical in nature. Give the movie credit because it can play on a metaphorical level, though I am not sure its creators intended such lofty aspirations. In the case of Paranormal Activity, the demon is a real one and this film has an air of pure entertainment.

It may be purely accidental that Paranormal Activity works on this more sophisticated metaphorical level. This might explain the film’s massive appeal. After all, most casual film goers never articulate a film’s deeper connection beyond a feeling that it was simply “good” or “scary”. However, it is the presence of such higher underpinnings such as metaphor that usually elevate films, whether by accident or design.

The demon in Paranormal Activity follows Katie into her and her boyfriend’s really nice place. And why not a nice house for a change? Wouldn’t a demon prefer a trendy condo to an old dilapidated haunted house? If I were a demon, I would surely go for the spacious foyer, handsome crown molding, elegant dining room and the dramatic French door entrance to the study. I mean, who said ghosts—eh— demons, have to live on the cheap?

Paranormal activity plays on our imagination very well, but is not without flaws. Me personally, I like it when you get special effects. I would have liked to see the floating demon showing its fangs, a forked tail and do all sorts of goofy scary CGI-inspired stuff. But, that is me. That is what I want when I pluck down a sawbuck for a ticket and a tub of buttery bliss. I want both entertained and scared. If I have to pay more for a 3D movie, shouldn’t I have to pay less for one filmed on a home video camera?

Nonetheless, it would be hard to argue that Paranormal Activity is not the perfect at home ghostly movie that will get you sleeping closer to your better half and make you look at them twice when they return from a midnight bathroom break.

I give Paranormal Activity credit for employing the demon to scare these yuppies. And after all, how can you scare college-educated suburbanites nowadays besides showing them a Wall Street Journal? The last time anyone scared suburbanites with any sort of convincing was Spielberg’s Poltergeist (1982). It just seems an abhorrence that a ghost would haunt a ranch home built in the 60s or a more trendy San Diego condo built a few years ago without some added contrivance. Nowadays, you need more than a mere ghost. Perhaps today is the “I-ghost generation” of haunted house fans? Ghosts, the creepy kind, only seem to haunt your Lizzy Borden type of domicile built centuries ago. This older type of ghost may now be Spirits non grata (to coin a term) in today’s more modern tales.

There are lot of well done scenes in Paranormal Activity. Early in the film, they invite a ghost expert into the house who senses something is indeed in the house with them. He tells them it is not a ghost but a demon. So he recommends they call his demonologist buddy. I liked the part where Katie got up in the middle of the night and just stood there looking at her boyfriend. At first this is a little creepy, but then they show that several hours go by on the video timer. The thought that my better half might stare at me for so long is really freaking me out. What could they possibly be thinking? I should kill this person?

In other effective scenes, Micah picks Katie up outside and they go back upstairs to a weird sound and the TV is on playing static. The segment where the thing yanks her out of the bed and drags her down the hallway is pretty cool too. As a result she has what looks like bite marks on her body. A recurrent technique used to great effect was to sound the presence of the demon while they slept with an increasingly loud humming base sound that evoked an unseen malevolent force quite well.

However, the movie stumbles at points. It is obvious the demon is becoming increasingly violent but this doesn’t alarm them to the level you would think. Somehow they can keep going to sleep at night with the camera rolling. How?—I am not sure. I know most guys love to test new electronics but Micah Sloat is nothing short of a complete douche in this regards. He seems generally more interested in how his new camera works and is oblivious to the unexplainable events that happen at night. Considering all the screaming Katie does, I am surprised the cops are never called in to drag Micah away on a battery charge.

From an acting standpoint, both Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat were very good; Katie a bit better than Micah. Featherston seemed to flow naturally with her character. Sloat’s character came across as one dimensional and flat at times. First-time director Oren Peli set out to tap into people’s primal fear about having an unwanted spirit in the house, which you could do very little about. Peli’s wise focus on believability rather than action and gore, was successful.

Then again, I am not sure Peli had a choice but to focus on fear. What else can you focus on if the film costs a mere 15,000 to make? Surely you can’t produce a blood bath, ghost-filled, haunted house extravaganza on that kind of budget. What you get for $15,000 is a remake of the Blair Witch project but with a demon. If you enjoyed The Blair Witch project, then I find little reason to think you will not enjoy Paranormal Activity. In that spirit—no pun intended—you will enjoy this film. Paranormal Activity is by no means a perfect film, but it is, on the whole, a hauntingly commendable effort.