‘Paranormal Activity’ Poses Problematic Reality, But Pitch-Perfect Scares

Paranormal Activity pried its way into theaters, several years ago, by sheer audience demand. Since then, it’s seen a lucrative sequel and shows no signs of stopping there, with a third movie slated for release later this year. But what keeps people interested in this budding franchise? What is it about the first one that brought the audience to their news two years ago? It’s hard to say what it is or what makes a movie scary, but Paranormal Activity does well to create an atmosphere for itself, utilizing their shoestring budget and a couple of unknown, if not questionable, actors.

Even as someone who didn’t entirely understand all the hype surrounding the first film, its technical merits are somewhat impressive. It makes good use of the old horror adage, “what you don’t see is often scarier than what you do see.” Although some of the scares are cheap, they are more or less effectively used. More than anything else, this film stands as a testament to solid filmmaking on a low budget. Its technical achievements far outweigh its concern with story and for awhile that’s fine, but when it becomes the most renowned or even noticeable trait of the film, that becomes a little problematic.

While I don’t mean to downplay its humble beginnings, that alone does not make for a standout film. For me, the issues of the film lie within the story world, not the film’s production. The movie is plagued by a number of problems that it never quite has the strength or originality to overcome. Personally, one of the biggest issues was the suspension of disbelief. I was able to buy into the whole demon aspect of the film, but when the film is seemingly set in reality? That’s when these characters and this setting became an issue for me. For instance, the house that the film takes place in? It’s seriously got to be one of the nicer houses I’ve seen an unmarried couple in their 20s living in. How the hell did they pay for that? I know Micah is a day-trader, but that’s absolutely unreal. Especially given the fact that during the entire movie, never once do we see either of them doing any real work. The closest they come is when Katie is studying and Micah keeps bothering her, so she quits after two minutes. The supernatural elements of the story come easily enough, but it is Paranormal Activity‘s very loose grasp on reality that created more of a problem for me than anything else. It didn’t single-handedly destroy the movie, but it proved to be distracting in moments that I think were intended to build tension.

Then again, leaving the world of the real behind and ignoring the minor details, that some might describe as nitpicking, the film stumbles and falls with its two characters all on their own. For starters, it is incredibly difficult to make a movie that features only two central characters and very little outside interaction. I applaud them for their effort, but in the end, it doesn’t work. Katie’s transformation from sweet and demure to exhausted and hostile is utterly fantastic. It has got to be one of the strongest performances I’ve seen in recent horror. Micah is the problem. Not only is his character obnoxious, but as it gets progressively worse, I found myself wanting bad things to happen to him. Seriously, he’s more antagonistic than the film’s demon or whatever it is. Normally, one flawed character is never too much of a deal breaker, but when the film only features two or three characters? That’s when we run into a problem.

Furthermore, the set up of the film doesn’t allow for much forgiveness of the character. I understand why we start with Micah purchasing the camera, but filming it in such a way doesn’t really allow us to get to know the character. While the fact that Micah is typically behind the camera rather than in front of it doesn’t help matters, it just doesn’t work as well as it should. I think the biggest issue is with the dynamic between the two. It seems intentional that as the film progresses, it gets more and more hostile. Tensions rise and tempers flare, which all makes sense given the situation. Still, we are never given the opportunity to see the relationship between Katie and Micah when their relationship is at a good stage. Eventually it becomes almost impossible to imagine that they ever cared about one another. Considering the whole basis for Micah trying to help Katie because he loves her, this just comes off as contrived and insincere. It’s in defining its characters and creating them that paranormal Activity runs into difficulties, not in finding ways to scare its audience.

Paranormal Activity is an anomaly. It’s a technically proficient film, but if the same attention had been paid to its characters, it had the potential to become a great film. Instead, the audience is treated to a jumble of home movies which are assembled into a passable story. The lure of the film was never the story, which is nothing revelatory. It seems like it should have been about the characters, but through poor development and some limitations placed on them by the story, what the audience experiences is a couple of bumps in the night filmed on a low budget.

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