*/**** Image B Sound B
starring Katie Featherston, Michah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs, Ashley Palmer
written and directed by Oren Peli
by Walter Chaw It's a good try from first-time hyphenate Oren Peli, but it's ultimately an exercise bereft of satisfying, thoughtful payoffs--a couple of generally effective sequences only that way because they cause one to anticipate that something will come of them. Nothing does. Comparisons to The Blair Witch Project aren't entirely off base, either, in that Paranormal Activity is about a decade past its sell-by date with a tale of irritating technophilia that would have felt more current in the Y2K Ludditism of 1999 than it did in the resigned technocracy of 2009--explanation in part for why it's already out of the conversation and never stirred much outrage or controversy when it was causing audiences of teens to collectively fake-shudder the way festival audiences collectively fake-cathect. The new conversation is the one introduced by George Romero's Diary of the Dead and Matt Reeves's Cloverfield, where the unnatural instinct isn't whipping out a digital camera or camera phone, but not. It's a communal experience if it's anything, and as far as such things go, there are still midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show floating around out there, aren't there? Its pleasures aren't replicable, in other words, and watching it at home reveals it to be little more than a one-trick pony with one brilliant moment that isn't enough to justify the rest of it.
Katie (Katie Featherston) has two problems: her live-in boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat) is an idiot; and she's had a demon following her around like one of Clive Barker's Yatterings since she was a child. Not a very good demon, as it happens, resigning itself to rocking lights and casting shadows until Micah puts a camera on it, goading it into setting Ouija Boards on fire and, eventually, dragging Katie out of bed. A lot could be done with this premise--what's done instead is a whole lot of watching our prickly couple sleep as doors creak open by themselves or, in the best moments, Katie rising prematurely to stand stock still by the side of the bed and watch her unconscious lover for hours on end. A friend of mine smart about these things, Keith Garcia, correctly identified it as a "reset" of what we're really afraid of, and by that standard, Paranormal Activity definitely finds real fear in not only what happens to us while we're sleeping but also, in a sneaky way, who's watching us when we're most vulnerable. If we talk of the film as Luddite in any way, maybe draw a line to the alleged anonymity of the Internet in a film that took off because of a viral campaign encouraging potential audiences to "vote" the film into their local cineplex. It's revealing in some way of what we want to see in our movies given the choice (people being victimized in their sleep), and the unlikeability of Katie and Micah--echoes of the also-unpleasant lo-fi one-trick pony du jour Open Water--highlights the sadism/voyeurism informing its popular success. None of which forgives the fact that a girl getting rag-dolled by an invisible assailant, although the highlight of the film, had already been done a quarter-century ago in A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Not helping is that Paranormal Activity is essentially a short film inflated to fill out the body of a feature, meaning the foreplay is protracted and awkward, the explanations for why the couple doesn't seek help sooner or from a wider array of sources (is there really only one demonologist in L.A.? How 'bout a priest?) are given too much rope from which to dangle, and the arguments about whether or not Micah should be calling the demon out feel repetitive to the point of ridiculousness. All would be well regardless, however, had the picture found a way to end itself. The original, non-Spielberg finish is okay, if too abrupt, while the Spielberg- suggested/implemented ending is, in the way of Spielberg endings, childish and immensely unsatisfying. There was apparently another capper where Katie sits--SPOILER ALERT--next to Micah's corpse for days until the cops arrive (so far, so good), upon which she apparently stands up and gets shot at by the freaked-out fuzz. Every conclusion, in other words, is too pat. What's the real menace of Katie in society, after all? Regan MacNeil stalking around Georgetown in a nightgown and pea soup is just not as scary as Regan MacNeil floating above her bed and jamming a crucifix into her vagina.
Too tame, too predictable, too ill-thought-out to be much of a player in the long term, what Paranormal Activity has working for it is that it managed to cast into relief how tired the mainstream horror scene (the one that rejects Halloween II in favour of The Final Destination) has become. It's not the answer, though--the answer is coming out of France the last few years with stuff like Inside and Martyrs. Paranormal Activity is merely safe in a vaguely novel way: the best haunted house in a two-cornfield town.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Releasing Paranormal Activity on Blu-ray Disc seems like overkill at best, reductive of the actual experience of the film at worst. (Too bad VHS is dead.) Every mote, every smear, every washed-out colour and light bloom of its DIY cinematography is on sharp display--at least until the night-vision sequences, which had me, I'm sad to confess, harking back often to the protracted, listless necrophilia of that Paris Hilton sex tape. Imagine that on Blu-ray for an idea of the superfluity of this direct-from-tape 1.78:1, 1080p transfer. As opposed to the aural majesty conjured for the "found video" of Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity's mix, here proffered in 5.1 DTS MA, is extremely limited and uninspired. Yes, it mimics the alleged source; no, it won't set panties ablaze. It's loud, mind you. Small blessings: the only extras on this Paramount platter are the original ending (same tech specs), an expanded credits-scroll listing fans of the film who wanted to see their name in lights, and that awesome trailer for Shutter Island in HD and 5.1. Mixed blessings: this probably means a deluxe platinum director's edition of the film is due out on the format prior to the release of the inevitable sequel. A second disc offers a Digital Copy of Paranormal Activity should one feel compelled to tote the film around. Originally published: January 1, 2010.