Overhyped, underwhelming and without one memorable scare, Paranormal Activity is to be admired for its minimalist marketing might, not maximum rampaging fright.
All the dithering about Oren Peli’s film makes it sound primed to yank off your psyche’s carpet and plow through its floorboards with a jackhammer. But it’s using toy tools at best.
Paranormal Activity boasts a great premise (a couple chronicling an increasingly nasty haunting of its home on digital equipment), actors as normal in appearance as folks in the audience (Micah Sloat like a dance-club rat and Katie Featherstone like an even plainer Jenna Fischer) and a few chills from audio-playback sequences.
Mostly, though, any of the bits that Paranormal Activity uses are more shopworn than its hype and huzzahs would have you believe. The only thing really drilled into your head is how woefully deficient the film is of any devious surprises.
The startle reflex is part of the horror-movie psychology. Sure, an audience might anticipate that something’s coming, but there’s a lot of information to sift through: Is something there? If so, what is it? Is it dead? Is it bad? What will it do?
Paranormal Activity’s problem is answering each question for us with telegraphed plot points and a pair of sensory cues that pop any balloon of tension or terror.
Katie (Featherstone) already knows a demon is after her — admitting that she’s been supernaturally stalked since she was 8 years old. As aggressively antagonistic boyfriend Micah (Sloat) suggests, that detail would have been nice to know before she moved in. It’s just one of Paranormal Activity’s sillier plot gambits, which includes the only demonologist in California being “out of town” when called.
Plus, whenever a digital timecode on the couple’s camera — most often mounted in their bedroom — speeds up, you know nothing will happen. Once it slows, you’re just waiting for spookiness to strike.
Also not helping is a loud bass rumble resembling construction equipment preceding any of the demon’s shenanigans. All of this feels less like mood, more like a Pavlovian trigger to get teens to stop Tweeting or texting and face the screen.
Good horror movies command a surplus of attention in its audience. This one sadly caters to its deficit, and when the demon strikes even in daylight, there’s no strong sense of fraying sanity. And that the duo even finds a way to fall asleep — let alone stay asleep — after more than two consecutive weeks of woe is a ludicrous notion.
Allegedly, the rattling soundtrack is the brainchild of Steven Spielberg, who claimed to be so scared by the film that he had to turn it off. Supposedly, he’s also responsible for the film’s current ending. Given that there are arguably four money shots in the whole thing, why include the biggest one in a trailer with little footage?
When giants like Spielberg speak, it’s not unexpected that first-timers like Peli listen. On this one, Spielberg should have shushed himself.
Those who do see Paranormal Activity are encouraged to read about the original endings, bound to end up on the Blu-ray release, that shatter the film’s marketing artifice as a true story. One of them is far preferable to the tired demonic gymnastics routine grafted on.
By virtue of its cheap look, miniscule budget and trickster marketing campaign, Paranormal Activity has drawn comparisons to The Blair Witch Project. That film’s authors should take offense, as its frights lacked overt explanation and its ending suggested even further chilling implications.
Paranormal Activity’s current ending differs little from that of last year’s Quarantine. “The scariest film of all time?” So ridiculously far from it.