Paranormal Activity

When I won tickets to Paranormal Activity, my immediate thought was “Fantastic! I can do a skeptical review!”

Now, a day after going to the theatre I find that doing a review in kind of disingenuous. How so? Well, is it really fair to review a film when you haven’t watched all of it?

Before last night I have walked out of three movies; Idle Hands, Space Jam & The Island of Dr. Moreau, Add Paranormal Activity to the list now.

I’ve sat through worse films – I’m a sucker for it, actually. In the summer of ’95 I relished the badness of that epically bad season of summer flicks (Including Johnny Mnemonic, Congo, Species, Die Hardest (or whatever the third film of that franchise was called), Judge Dredd, Tank Girl (Awesome!) and Waterworld.)

It is also worth noting that just because I’m a skeptic, doesn’t mean I have an a priori opinion of movies about the paranormal. But you’ll have to take my word on that until I show some evidence by enjoying some future piece of woo-sploitation.

I’m not even one of those film snobs who thinks that The Shining is the only ghost story film (or at least the pinnacle of the sub-genre) worth watching. Indeed, I’m not a big fan of it at all. I totally love Ghost Ship though. Yeah, Ghost Ship. Deal. I even preferred The Ring to Ringu. So there.

Perhaps that might make you think that if my taste in woo-sploitation is that plebian that perhaps Paranormal Activity is actually worth watching… Don’t get your hopes up.

As a movie, this is a mess. It begins by spoiling it’s own ending with a title card informing us that Paramount Pictures would like to thank the families of the main characters, Micah and Katie, as well as the San Diego Police. Gee. Thanks.

From there we are introduced to live-in girlfriend and boyfriend Katie and Micah. She is experiencing some kind of haunting, he has bought an expensive digital camera to catch some of the freaky-stuff in the act.

We are forced to watch the action play out through the hand-held camera work of these two. So basically, this is Blair Witch Project in a house. Except Blair Witch Project was an original idea.

The idea of a film entirely from a handheld POV is not only a tired idea by now, but by now I would hope that anyone stubborn enough going down that creatively bankrupt road would have tried to find a new take on it, or at the very least do everything in their ability to limit the intensity of the vomit-inducing handheld motion. It really isn’t that hard to put some care into it. But director Oren Peli only makes it worse by lighting half the scenes only with the single spot attached to the camera itself. It only served to make the motion more dizzying.

Now, call me crazy, but I kind of like movies where things happen. Or failing that I can be won over by really interesting and well drawn characters. And in a drought of all else, I can be drawn in by really great camera work. The first hour of Paranormal Activity is marked by an absolute paucity of all of the above. I can’t tell you about the rest, except – they don’t make it, but you already know that thanks to the opening title card. Making the ‘nothing is happening’ problem worse is a failure to edit all-manner of un-enlightening footage from the film… I’m guessing they had to pad it out to get it to a feature length.

While I came in looking forward to a fun fright fest, it didn’t take very long at all before I was nit-picking. Micah is a day-trader. He claims that he bought the camera for “half of what I made today.” It’s a pretty high end pro-sumer camera. Micah apparently makes something like $4000 a day… and yet he wears the same t-shirt every day.

When things start going bump in the night, Katie and Micah fall into the horror trope of never turning on a light. It’s their own home! They know where the switched are. Gah!!! It makes me wonder how Entertainment Weekly can look at themselves in a mirror after saying “Paranormal Activity scrapes away 30 years of encrusted nightmare clichés.”

How about skeptically? That is in theory what I was supposed to be reviewing. Obviously we have to put the premise aside and embrace it.

Beyond that…

Early on Katie invites a psychic over to consult with them. For starters I wouldn’t call him a psychic. Perhaps a ghost hunter or credulous paranormal investigator. There is at best a patina of “I feel an evil presence.” He mostly takes notes. He listens to Katie’s story about how she used to be visited by a presence when she was a little girl, and how when her family home burned down she was visited at their new home, and how the last house she lived in they left because she was getting visited there and now again in her and Micah’s new home. What is is asessment? “This is about you. Not the houses. You are being followed by a negative force.” Brilliant. He all but parrots her own words back to her. But he also says somthing I found amusingly refreshing, if implausible for a psychic. He tells them that often hauntings can be (*gasp*) explained by mundane things and those should not be ruled out!

When Micah shows off the equipment he has bought, he points out that he has bought an “EVP Recorder.” An EVP recorder? Do you mean a microphone? Even if you accept EVP as a real phenomenon, there isn’t specialized equipment for it. You might as well buy a paradoliea-collector. No wonder he can only afford one t-shirt, he’s blowing cash on perfectly normal equipment, given a name that implies specialization and sold at a premium. To be fair, he does manage to collect some paradoleia with his over-priced gizmo.

When Micah actually starts catching phenomena on camera, does he show anyone other than Katie? No. When there is a groan and an enormous crash in the middle of the night do they call the police? Ghostbusters even? NO! Katie suggests that Micah should quit trying to film what is happening, ’cause he may be making the entity mad. Of course we know that isn’t going to happen until they meet their fate, though I found myself wishing he would stop.

After an hour of nothing happening I found myself wishing I was at home watching Buffy – not even good Buffy, I’d happily watch “Beer Bad.” I sighed. Jodie tapped me on the shoulder. “Want to leave?” “Oh god, yes.”

On our way out of the theatre we nearly stepped in someone’s vomit in the hallway… so clearly someone had an even worse time with the film than I did.

For the record we didn’t watch “Beer Bad” – we watched a different Buffy low-point; “Storyteller.”

Looks like the next major piece of woo-sploitation on the calendar is “2012“.  I don’t expect it to be good, but at least it might be fun, like those crappy movies from the summer of 1995.

- Kennedy

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  • Kennedy Goodkey

    Kennedy is a film-maker and skeptic. As a skeptic his primary interests are in the communication and advocacy of skeptical and science issues, specifically calling attention to the idea that the standard practice of “playing nice with others” is not always the best approach, and definitely must be explored and refined as a tactic to be leveraged to best effect.