The fourth Paranormal Activity film is coming out this weekend, and since it’s a franchise that clearly has some traction with the movie-going public, I thought I would take advantage of an opportunity to watch the first film, as I was unfamiliar with the series. Released in 2007, it was the first film by writer, producer, and director Oren Peli, and also for stars Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat. Featherston and Sloat play a young couple with the same first names as the stars; apparently much of the dialogue was unscripted, and the stars weren’t informed whenever something scary would happen so as to get natural reactions. Keeping the character names the same was probably helpful in ensuring that they didn’t yell out the wrong name under the circumstances. The technique works as far as it goes; Katie especially seems genuinely terrified throughout most of the picture.
Unfortunately, this is about all the film has to recommend it. I found the movie to be terminally dull.
Settling House: The Movie
Katie is being haunted by a paranormal presence that has periodically tormented her since she was eight years old. Lately it seems to be getting worse. The film is told in “found footage” format, with film shot from a camera Micah purchases to document the activity so they can prove what’s going on and try to figure out what to do about it. This is the first and last beneficial thing that Micah does. Micah falls into the common horror role of the unlikeable victim — the kind of guy who would be killed off in the first 20 minutes of a Friday the 13th movie. He goes out of his way to do things he’s expressly told not to do by a paranormal expert (Mark Fredrichs), and goes against Katie’s wishes on more than one occasion. Even in the absence of any supernatural phenomena, his actions would be enough to make the audience eagerly anticipate something happening to him. Micah’s ability to conclude he can become an expert in demonology while at the same time dismissing the advice of people who he knows have studied it — while reading a book by others, no less — requires a staggering level of idiocy. And while that kind of character can work to some extent in a slasher movie — a genre which arguably shades into villain protagonist territory anyway — it doesn’t work as well in a smaller, more focused horror film. With only two real characters — the psychic and Katie’s friend Amber (Amber Armstrong) are just bit parts — any investment the audience is going to have is dependent on wanting these characters to survive, and that only applies to half of the duo here.
Where’s Jason Voorhees when you really need him?
Of course, audience investment is also helped by the fear factor, and Paranormal Activity doesn’t do much to deliver on that part either.
I want to stress before I go any further that I was giving this film about as a good of a chance as I could. I was watching it close to midnight, when I was just tired enough for my mind to be suggestible. I had all the lights out. I had no human company in my end of the house (and nobody awake at all), just a one-year-old beagle sprawled out nearby. I’ll grant that as nightmare repellent goes, a snoring puppy probably ranks pretty high, but I don’t think it would have mattered in this case anyway.
Some films take the slow approach when building up the suspense, but Paranormal Activity is cinematic molasses. We’re informed there’s something going on in the house almost immediately, but it’s about thirty minutes in — of a 90 minute movie — before we see the first hint, and even that’s just a door gently swinging. Things do gradually start to pick up, and the last twenty minutes or so are genuinely creepy, but most of the film consists of watching two people lying in bed or lounging around the house, punctuated by the occasional “THUMP”. Not only is it not frightening — I could forgive it for that — it’s not even interesting. Occasional moments of creepy silence or stillness can work really well in horror films, because they’re a contrast from what we’re used to — the world is full of sound and motion. But when 90% of a movie is silent and still, there is no contrast, and it no longer feels creepy, it just feels tedious. A great deal of the fright factor in horror movies comes from the imagination of the audience wondering what’s going to happen, but Paranormal Activity over-relies on it, and left me wondering when something was going to happen.
I swear this is a different screenshot than the first one.
Now, it’s not a complete failure. There are a couple creepy moments in the film, particularly towards the end. But by the time it got to that point, I was not invested in the film, I was sick of it. It simply took too long to do anything interesting with its premise, or anything at all. A slow burn can work, but in this case it was too slow… it needed to start with the truly creepy parts a lot earlier than it did in order to be interesting.