I walked into Paranormal Activity with little idea about anything regarding the film. For whatever reason, I wasn’t aware of the buzz online about it, and only took note of the film and it’s midnight showing buzz after an article in The Toronto Star and an email from Japer asking a bunch of us to check it out.
Without trying to spoil anything for myself, I did find out a few tidbits of information, most specifically that the film is similar to The Blair Witch Project, with its hand-held camera format, low budget, and no-name actors. The thing is, that wasn’t necessarily the best comparison for this horror movie fan. I didn’t enjoy The Blair Witch Project at all when I saw it in theatres 10 years ago. I found it boring, the characters unlikeable, just not all that scary. Of course, I will admit that the flick gave me nightmares a week after seeing it, so in the end I suppose it did its job.
Without giving you any spoilers, I’ll simply say that the plot of Paranormal Activity revolves around a young couple who are being disturbed by sounds in their new home and decide to keep a video camera running to document the strange goings on. Walking out after Saturday night’s midnight showing, I felt the same as I did back in 1999 with The Blair Witch Project – disappointment. Once again we’re presented with a minimum of characters; in this case, there are really only two – Katie and Micah. The problem is, one of them (Micah) is totally obnoxious, which made the last 35 minutes of the film hard to watch. It fact, its the second half of the film as a whole that really turned me off of it. Scenes and scenarios became repetitive, with too much of lull time between the genuinely frightening scenes the film possess (we’ll get to that). It was these two issues that had me walking out of the theatre declaring Paranormal Activity “fucking horrible”.
And then I got home. And tried to fall asleep. And I couldn’t. And when I finally did, I had nightmares that creeped the hell out of me. I kept seeing the most frightening scenes from the film in my mind’s eye. My ears kept searching around the house for any strange or out of place noises. When I woke up, I looked at the dog for confirmation that it was only me, my wife, and the pooch in the house. The dog offered no such consolation. Not even a wag of the tail. I was even afraid to walk down the hall to the bathroom by myself (did I mention I have the best wife in the world?)
I may have been bored by the end of Paranormal Activity while I was sitting there, but I can tell you without reservation that the film ultimately did what it was supposed to. It scared the shit out of me.
For the first time in a long time, I went to a movie that stayed with me for almost 24 hours after I saw it. The film was Paranormal Activity, and going into the film I barely knew that there was a film called Paranormal Activity in theatres. I went in with a blank slate, and an open mind. I knew absolutely nothing about the plot, who was in it, when it was made, and had seen no promotional campaign for the film, not even the trailer. The only thing that I had read was that the film was being shown at midnight screenings in college towns across North America, and had been building some very good word-of-mouth buzz.
On Sunday October 11th, I went to the midnight screening with some contributors of Biff Bam Pop, ready to be entertained. I’m not going to reveal too much detail about the plot, as I really think you should see this movie by knowing next to nothing about it. The basic premise is that a couple is living in a house that is being haunted. There’s more to it than that, but that is what you’re led to believe at the beginning. I’m sure you’re thinking this is might be a slasher film from that brief summary, but Paranormal Activity is far from being a slasher film. It is more of a psychological tale, and you are left to use your imagination to fill in the scary parts. Slasher films are not scary to me, because I have seen so much violence in movies that I’m pretty desensitized to it. On the other hand, having to use my imagination is something that movies do not make me do very often.
The film is very low budget, and there are some obvious comparisons to The Blair Witch Project. The main one is that the film uses a handheld camera, and follows the couple around the house. In fact, the entire film is shot within its confines, and the only time the camera leaves it is when the main character of Micah goes to the front of the driveway to film his girlfriend Katie coming home. Unlike The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, the single-camera device does not make you feel queasy. It is carried around a lot, but there are several shots where the film is setup on a tripod, so you get a long steady shot. Those are usually the most frightening. I will say that the constant night shot in the bedroom became a character in the film to me, because I would be sitting in the theatre knowing something terrifying was going to happen on screen. As more and more events happened, I would lower my baseball cap and have my eyes look down at only the bottom part of the screen. I’m a 31 year old man, but I will admit that I was scared. There is another obvious comparison to The Blair Witch Project but I will not go into detail as it is a spoiler to the movie.
There are problems with Paranormal Activity. We have the annoying character, in this case the boyfriend Micah, who at times can be a horror film cliché, but for every moment that he annoys you, another moment will happen where he makes you laugh or sympathize with his character. The girlfriend Katie pulls off the rare accomplishment in a horror film of not being an annoying female. She’s a pretty smart character, and you believe the fear that she is experiencing when these paranormal events are happening. For a low budget film, it does have some decent effects. Even the group of us at Biff Bam Pop! who saw it admitted we were impressed with some of the sequences.
Paranormal Activity is only 84 minutes in length, but I did have a problem with the format of the film, and I did a couple of watch checks because I was bored. The film follows the same structure of events unfolding: Something happens (usually at night), it gets analyzed by the couple in the day for about 5 minutes, and then we go back into bedroom at night to witness another event. It becomes tedious, and I hit a point where I said “enough already!”, especially during the middle part of the film. However, the film’s last third is some of the most intense pieces of film I’ve seen all year, and I will say the final sequence absolutely scared the life out of me. I had my hands firmly clutching the armrest of my seat.
When Paranormal Activity ended and we walked out of the theatre, the group of us who saw it said we didn’t like the film (with the exception of JP, who was quite impressed). This could have been male bravado, where we didn’t want to admit that we were scared of what we just saw and didn’t want to admit our true feelings for the film, because guys are not allowed to be scared. Truthfully that was my initial reaction, one of dislike, but the longer I was from having seen the film, the more it stuck with me. The film ended at about 1:40am, and I got home at 2:30am, by which point I was so scared of what I had just seen I did not want to go to bed. I kid you not, the film scared me so much because it made me visualize my fear of what happens at night when I am sleeping, and when I’m at my most vulnerable. I did go to bed (at around 5am) and I didn’t have any nightmares, and nothing bad happened to me, so I have survived one night.
When I woke up the next morning, I checked the Sunday box office totals, and was absolutely shocked that the film cracked the top five at the box office. I e-mailed Andy Burns telling him the news, and told him that I was scared of the film when I got home, and didn’t want to go to sleep. He had the same reaction. At its core, Paranormal Activity is a story about things that go bump in the night. It has been over 24 hours since I’ve seen the film, and I’m still a little scared of what I saw, and I’m not afraid to admit it. My immediate reaction was a negative one as soon as I walked out of theatre, but after thinking about the film for over 24 hours, I’m giving it 4 out 5, even with its flaws, and will say that it is the best horror film I have seen all year.
I watch many films over the course of a year, and very few resonate with me after I see them, but Paranormal Activity is a film that will frighten you, make you jump in your seat, make you close your eyes in fear, and most importantly, stay with you long after you see it. So I ask you, the reader, when is the last time any movie made you feel that way? It’s probably been awhile, and if that is the case, then you should go see Paranormal Activity – I dare you.