Movie Review: Paranormal Activity (2009)

November 17, 2009 in Movie Reviews by pacejmiller


Paranormal Activity is the latest ‘is it real or not?’, low-budget horror movie pieced together with supposed amateur home video footage.  Think The Blair Witch Project for haunted houses.

While I liked the overall idea and it’s by no means a terrible film, Paranormal Activity didn’t really do it for me.  Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood to be scared.  It did have its moments, but certainly isn’t the ‘scariest’ or ‘most terrifying’ movie of all time (or even the year) as it has been hyped up to be.

The footage begins when young couple Micah and Katie, living together in a fairly nice suburban house, decide to get a video camera to capture the paranormal activity they have been experiencing.  There is a bit of a back story and you get to know the characters are little through footage of their daily lives, but I found these to be time fillers than any real effort to allow the audience to get to know, and perhaps even care about, these people.

Like The Blair Witch Project, the tension in Paranormal Activity is built up slowly and gradually, with the intent of blowing the audience away with a ripper of an ending.  However, even at only 86 minutes, it felt like nothing was happening for a really long time.  A few bumps in the night, a few eerie things here and there, but for the most part they seemed like relatively minor incidents that were met with overreaction.  I understand director and writer Oren Peli’s intention to build an atmospheric film that utilises dread rather than cheap scares, but I spent much of the movie wishing something would actually happen.  I will say, though, that there were a couple of pretty cool things that happened towards the end, but unfortunately the final sequences weren’t as chilling as I had hoped.**

The film’s biggest problem, from which most of its other problems stemmed, was the restrictive nature of its format.  Of course, as the audience, you only get to see what has recorded by the inhabitants of the house.  But that raises some very difficult obstacles.  How much can you reasonably expect someone who is being terrified by demons to tape everything that happens to them?  Do you go the realistic route and miss out on some of the action?  Or do you come up with forced excuses to make them take the video camera everywhere and record everything?  Either way, the film suffers.

To its credit, Paranormal Activity tries to reach some sort of balance between the two extremes.  As the inhabitants actually set out to capture and document the haunting, a camera is set up in the bedroom and runs throughout the night, and that is when most of the creepy stuff happens.  In my opinion, that was by far the cleverest idea in the film.  Every time the bedroom cam is set up and the residents to go bed, I start to swell up with anticipation as the clock fast forwards to when ‘stuff’ happens.  Occasionally, they venture out of the bedroom in hand-held mode, but thankfully the footage is not as shaky or nauseating as it could have been.

However, what this system also means is that some scenes are left to your imagination because you can’t see what is going on – sometimes that may be more frightening, but that’s not always the case in this movie.  It also means that at least one of the characters has to be a totally unreasonable prick so the camera can be kept running, but it gets to the point where it becomes a stretch.  With this type of film format, you just have to take the good with the bad.

Paranormal Activity also suffers from a few other issues.  This kind of film thrives on the gullibility of the audience.  The more you believe it is real, the scarier it becomes.  The problem is, while both leads were adequate, there were a couple of occasions where they felt unnatural.  Could be the dialogue or the acting, but I wasn’t convinced I was watching authentic footage.  One of the reasons why The Blair Witch Project was so successful was because it misled people into believing that the footage was real.  The film was presented and marketed as authentic.  10 years later, this has become a lot more difficult to accomplish, and as a result Paranormal Activity doesn’t have quite the same impact as its predecessor.

In the end, Paranormal Activity is a film worth watching simply because it is fresh and not done very often.  And to be fair, it also has some solid, atmospheric moments.  That said, lower your expectations if you want to be genuinely frightened.

3 stars out of 5!

** Apparently there are at least 3 alternative endings for this film, and I don’t quite think the one released in the cinemas is the best one.  See here for more details.

PS: a sequel is already in the works thanks to the success of the film, which is already the most successful independent film ever in terms of return on investment.  Let’s just hope the sequel is at least watchable, unlike that dreadful sequel to Blair Witch which I still rank up there as one of the worst sequels of all time.