Do Not Taunt the Demon: “Paranormal Activity”

November 1, 2009

200px-Paranormal_Activity_posterWelcome back. Today we’re going to be looking at the film Paranormal Activity, which is one of those DIY movies that some people slapped together for a couple bucks and then gets released and makes quadzillions of bucks. The movie has actually been around scaring people for a couple weeks (and two years in small screenings before it got a decent distribution), but I’m only getting around to it now. Ideally I would have reviewed this in time for Halloween, but I didn’t. Sue me. Anyway, I’m also going to SPOIL Paranormal Activity, but the version I’ve seen is an earlier version with a different ending. Anyway, let’s have at it…

So, Paranormal Activity is one of those po-mod verite movies that is comprised entirely of amateur footage shot by our protagonists—in this case primarily by the male half of a couple named Micah and Katie (Micah is ostensibly the male half).  Micah has bought a honkin’ big video camera to document the you-know-what kind of activity that has been troubling he and Katie. Katie has been plagued by minor league supernatural events her whole life (minor league, that is, until they burned her childhood house down), but things seem to have been exacerbated by their move to a ginormous  San Diego McMansion.

Micah and Katie live the kind of mind-numbing domestic bliss that makes single people like me shiver and whimper in a corner. Possibly the whitest couple ever to lead a film, Micah is a day-trader (read: worse than Hitler) and Katie is a student, picking up her degrees in English and Spanish. Holy shit, even her higher education is boring. Micah tries to cajole Katie into making an amateur porn tape with his fancy new camera, but she shuts that idea down hard and fast (and thank God she does, as it spares us all grainy footage of what could only be the most vanilla, missionary-position sex in the history of human procreation). And the first ten minutes or so follow in this fashion, with Micah recording the banalities of their everyday life: he noodles on the guitar, while she knits (God, it’s me Gunmonkey, who must I sacrifice to ensure you never saddle me with a woman who knits in her spare time? Just give me a name.)

But before you suck-start your gun out of boredom, the story begins to kick in. Micah and Katie consult with a paranormal expert, who concludes that Katie isn’t plagued by ghosts, but of demons. And he warns them against using a Ouija board to talk to the demon. That’ll just encourage him. He gives them the name of a demonologist, and then he beats feet.

 Now typically when you say “demon” and “demonic possession,” the understanding is that the best-case scenario is puking up green glop while a couple of Jesuits stand over you chanting “The power of Christ compels you!” So you take it seriously. Micah, however convinces Katie that the best course of action is, in fact, not to call the demonologist, but to screw with the demon. Micah strikes me as the sort of person who would try and sneak into Iraq to get a job as a truck driver and end up an Al Jazeera video instead.

So we watch over the course of the better part of a month as they camera catches a series of strange events that escalate, and the gradual unraveling of Micah and Katie as they try and cope. It begins with thumps and bumps in the night, doors that close, then re-open, but escalates as the camera catches Katie seeming to sleepwalk—or at least sleep stand—beside the bed for hours on end.

Time passes, sleep is deprived, and the couple snaps and bickers. When Micah brings home a Ouija board—very much against Katie’s wishes—things kick into high gear. A message is left, the board is defaced, and the thumping continues. Micah decides to slather the floor in talcum powder to capture the demons footprints and see where he goes (what, exactly, is the second step in this plan? Get a big net and catch it?). This leads to the discovery of an old picture of Katie as a child—presumed lost when her childhood home burned down—stuffed in the insulation in the attic.

At this point, Micah and Katie begin to act intelligently—you know, in the same way we call flatworms intelligent when they avoid a hot wire. They call the ghost guy back, but he refuses to enter the house. They call the demonologist, but he’s out of the country.  Micah discovers footage on the Internet of a woman, possessed by a demon, who died during the exorcism when she chewed her own arm off (gives new meaning to the term coyote ugly, am I right…oh, wait, no it doesn’t), and thinks maybe an exorcism isn’t the best idea in the world.

Things intensify when Katie is attacked (off camera) in the night, brutalized, and left with a big bite mark on her back. Finally, things culminate in another session of Katie’s somnambulism. She wakes, walks out of camera range and screams. Micah runs after her and begins screaming himself, before he’s cut off. Katie walks back into frame, covered in blood and holding a large knife. She then sits down and rocks for the next fifteen hours or so, until the police arrive. They discover Micah’s body, and when the disoriented Katie walks toward them wielding the knife, they shoot her. Fin.

[Mind you, this was the ending I saw. It was not, to the best of my understanding, the one used in the US distribution of the movie, and only one of three filmed. Your conclusion my vary. You may have the ending in which Katoe and Micah confront the demon after a harrowing car chase, and Katie distracts him, while Micah shoots him between his enormous devil-horns…that might be what happens in your version. ]

Paranormal Activity is a pretty effective little movie, proving once again how simple it is to produce genuine scares by paying attention to what scares people! And by this I mean playing upon our most basic fears. Fear of the dark. Fear of noises in the dark. Fear of stuff we can’t explain. As I stated in my review of The Strangers, a door being pounded on at 3AM is leaps and bounds scarier than any number of machete-wielding killers. Writer/director Oren Peli understands this and plays off it well. Likewise, he intuitively stabs at our inherent vulnerability while we sleep. The sight of Katie standing beside the bed for what the camera tells us is over an hour before getting back in bed is more unsettling than any of the overheated dismemberings in any of the Saw movies. For those reasons, Paranormal Activity has a certain stick-to-your-ribs kind of fearr about it.

The rest of movie is merely adequate. For some weird reason, every verite movie seems to think that they gain realism by having incredibly dull and/or dislikable characters. Granted, much of the scariness of these movies comes from the illusion that you’re watching real characters and not movie heroes, but surely there is some middle ground between Heather Donohue and Lara Croft. Micah and Katie’s dialogue sounds spontaneous and realistic, but also dull as dirt. Can’t realism be at least interesting? Even when their veneer of happy couplehood flakes away, Katie is merely exposed to be…terrified, while Micah is all impotent bluster.

In her review of the film in Slate, Dana Stevens makes the argument that the movie is a thinly-veiled parable of the credit crisis. That seems to me to be a bit of a stretch. Sure, there’s a throwaway line about Micah taking a bath on the market, but that’s seemed to me to be more of a directorial nod to the fact that, oh yeah, these people have jobs.  I prefer to see the film’s message as something much simpler: Demons don’t like boring people, either.


  1. I was reading and suddenly I realized you told us the ending. ACK! Even though there are other endings and the one you mentioned may not be the one I will see, I was still disappointed! I don’t have to see it now that I know how it ends. I’ll wait for the DVD I guess.

    I like your reveiws but I don’t like being told how a movie will end before I have the chance to see it.

    • Sorry, but I did warn you in the first paragraph.

  2. So you did. I have no one to blame but myself!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: