Review of Paranormal Activity
November 23, 2009
Seeing what happens in the house while they sleep doesn’t make Katie and Micah rest any easier. Paranormal Activity has all the makings of a terrifying horror flick, but shallow acting drops it into the mediocre bin.
With almost snarky disregard for the feelings of his girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston), Micah (Micah Sloat) sets up a camera in their bedroom to capture any strange happenings while they sleep. He expects to capture nothing, but it turns out that the nothing wants to capture them. The bumps in the night aren’t just sounds; they’re auditory indicators of an invisible malicious force in the house. A force that has its sights set on Katie.
Seeing the threat gives your brain the ability figure out its nature and to assess its threat. When we can’t see the threat, even the littlest things frighten us. Oren Peli, writer-director of Paranormal Activity, isn’t afraid to exploit our agent-detecting natures. He doesn’t hide behind any corners or shy away from long, unbroken shots. This is to prove to the audience that there is no trickery, but we still can’t see anything. We know exactly what Katie and Micah know and hear what they hear, sometimes even before they do. Neither the audience nor the characters have any exclusive information. It’s an equal playing field, making the audience feel like they are part of the story.
We are left to ask the same questions as the characters. Was that the house adjusting or something coming up the stairs? Was that a thud or my imagination? Could that have been an earthquake? Paranormal Activity is all about the questions. The audience and the characters are filled with them.
Oren Peli makes carefully considered casting decisions. Katie Featherston is not a supermodel, which makes her less typical than most horror-movie babes. She doesn’t automatically turn women off or men on. She could be any woman in her mid-twenties in any neighborhood. Micah Sloat follows the same vein. At first glance, he inspires no particular feelings. The psychic (Michael Fredrichs) Katie and Micah hire is atypical but inoffensively so. The characters’ homogeneous appearance allows the audience to draw their conclusions based on the story, not their first impressions.
Even the camera work adds a layer of suspense. One amateur style and frenzied hand-held camera works to exploit the nonrational parts of our minds. The unsteady camera work might upset the stomach of a few audience members, but the payoff is sincere, genre-appropriate visuals keen on making the experience a horrific one. It’s nearly enough to make the audience check under their seats. Almost.
The problem with having a single person write and direct is that there are no checks and balances to either the writer or director, so one area is often sacrificed for the other. While the direction of Paranormal Activity is thrilling, the writing is clunky and unnatural. Scenes that could have been downright frightening are dampened by a sentence or comment that could turn someone cross-eyed with confusion. Occasionally, the nonverbal character interactions are intimate and subtle, but these are then squashed by a lead boot of a line. There are extraneous scenes that last long enough to make cleaning my fingernails a far better use of my attention. The actors sure weren’t keeping it.
Appearance is about the only brilliant part of the casting of Micah Sloat and Katie Featherson. For a couple who are living together and supposed to be in love, they lack chemistry. Through most of the film, Katie and Micah seem more like brother and sister than a committed couple. There is neither warmth in their relationship nor any chill. The situation they find themselves in would be enough to challenge any relationship, but any strain that is written into the story is played with a dispassionate indifference. The loving scenes seem tentative and unnatural. They aren’t abysmal, but they do not convey fear well enough to inspire terror. A horror movie without terror is like a ship without a sail; it just doesn’t go anywhere.
The film shuts the door to all reason when it elucidates the dangerous force in the house. Spiked pixy dust found that the bottom of a pirate ship by blind nuns on a mission from aliens on a shopping spree would have been a more believable ending than the silliness offered up as an explanation.
It is a mighty shame that Paranormal Activity, a flick with such pretty flowers, can’t seem to bear fruit. The sweet aroma soaks the air, but it only makes the stomach growl because there is nothing to sink teeth into.