Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Paranormal Activity (2009)

A few weeks ago I went to see Paranormal Activity with a good bunch of dudes (Doug, Ethan, Will, and Hugh). We'd all heard a bunch of buzz about this being a genuinely terrifying movie without gore, so we were all excited. We saw it with a good responsive crowd, so it was a fun time.

The promotion for this movie has been designed around the idea that the less you know about the film, the better the experience, so I'm letting you know now that I'll be discussing specific content in the review below. Fair warning, go ye n'further if ye want to see the movie unspoilt.

The movie is structured like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, in that it's documentary-style "found footage." The story concerns Katie and Micah (pronounced "Mee-kuh" because his parents hated him), a couple who live together in San Diego. Katie has been haunted by a spirit or presence for years, and it has returned again. Micah is a skeptic, and decides to set up a camera to try and capture the phenomena of the haunting. As it turns out, it's a demon that's been following her. And the demon wants her (for what, it's never clear). And it doesn't like being taunted, it doesn't like the camera, and it doesn't like Micah. By the end it has fully possessed Katie and killed Micah.

The movie is pretty good. I try not to give bad art a pass because it was made on a low budget, and fortunately these guys did a great job by using their limitations as strengths. The best parts of the film are the titular paranormal events, most often observed in the bedroom set-up. It begins very subtly, with a door moving and some audible foot-steps. By the end Katie is being dragged out of bed in one of the most terrifying scenes in the film. Other notable scenes include the appearance of three-toed demon footprints in baby powder that Micah has spread around, an Ouija board that moves by an unseen hand and then bursts into flame, and a shadow moving across a door. Each time the demon is present, the audio turns low and bassy, and it's a great effect for giving the sense of an evil oppressive presence.

The stuff I didn't like was all the relationship drama. I understand the need for it for the story structure, but it was mostly boring, and, at its worst, unbelievable. It's understandable that Micah would scoff at and taunt the demon in the beginning when he doubts its existence, but it's beyond stupid that he would say, "No one messes with my girl; I'll take care of it" when he believes it exists. And "I'll take care of it" seems to mean doing nothing other than more bro-posturing.

Which leads me to the biggest hole in the film. No one, at any point, decides to consult an exorcist. Or at least some religious figure. If you're convinced and terrified that there is an evil demon tormenting you, I don't care if you're Richard Dawkins, you're going to consult someone or something on the "good" side to try and protect yourself. As an American in 2009, you're aware of the pop-culture surrounding demon mythology. Everyone's heard of The Exorcist. Everyone knows the idea of God vs. the Devil, angels vs. demons, good vs. evil. So the fact that there's not one mention of God, Jesus, angels, whatever, is unbelievable. Not as a Christian, but as a movie-goer. It's odd, too, since the movie does a good job of addressing our other concerns (like why don't they just leave the house).

Last complaint: CG demon face at the end was stupid. When the rest of your movie is made up of practical, believable effects, don't suddenly end it the way a cookie-cutter horror movie would with a distractingly obvious demon face biting the screen black.

The movie is an impressive demonstration of making something genuinely affective without any money. While it didn't shake me to my core, it provided a few good scares and a good sense of atmosphere. Worth a rent.


Charlie said...


I could be wrong, but I got the impression that they decided not to call an exorcist after what happened to the last girl this demon took a shine to (The internet research). Having spelt out the name Dianne on the ouija board, leading them to this girl's story which closely mirrors their own, it essentially warns them not to f*ck with it, or things will get much worse, probably fatal. Possibly the indication that it is strong enough that more than a simple exorcism will be needed to get rid of it.
Also, there are multiple endings, the version I saw didn't end the way you dedscribed, but with the police discovering her and shooting her when she runs at them with a knife.

Ryan said...

My point was not whether specifically contacting a Catholic exorcist would have helped, but rather that they didn't consult anybody on the "good side." If you're introducing a supernatural evil element into your movie, especially a demon that brings with it a whole mythos, you have to play by the rules. To introduce that element and simply say, "It's too powerful for anything to overcome it!" is a cheat and makes no sense to anyone. If you make up new rules, you have to explain them. Otherwise, to a modern western audience, bringing up a demon assumes a general understanding of what that entails. And one of those elements is that there is a supernatural good force that is more powerful and can overcome evil. You can have evil triumph in your movie, but you have to provide a good reason for the characters not to reach out for help from the supernatural good side. I don't think they did that.