Impressions: Paranormal Activity

So as I write this Impressions piece, it needs to be noted that until recently I had never actually seen this movie *pause for gasps*. I know it’s a bit odd, more than, for a “genre nut” to have completely missed what could be called a cultural phenomenon, at least in the horror world, but I did. I wasn’t overly interested when it was first coming out, and it moved firmly to my “to watch” list but never really moved up on that list. Still, as time has passed, I felt it was time to give it a go.

So what made this movie such a phenomenon? It’s true that the movie caused pretty divisive reactions, but for several years it was highly talked about and part of the fabric of what made horror. We compared other movies to it, we expected similar movies and used “like Paranormal Activity” as a touchstone, and we knew, for a time, that we would get sequels.

I think a lot of it had to do with the marketing. It was a movie that played up the idea of filming the first audiences to market it. It was a movie that sold itself on being a unique and terrifying experience, and instead of telling you about the movie it told you about the people it scared. It is not the only movie to choose this, but it did lean into it. That helped to sell a movie in a way that more traditional trailers might have failed at.

The other key component of this movie was the fact that it was basically a new sub-genre in and of itself. It is a sold as a found footage movie, which it is, but it’s a bit different from what people had grown to expect from found footage up until that point. It’s not a The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. Rather it’s more like a “home movie” shot in one location tracking one event. When you think of movies like The Den or The Visit you would say they are more like Paranormal Activity than they are like other found footage movies that follow a group on a larger journey. Paranormal Activity, for better or for worse, seemed to create a sub-genre of a sub-genre. Taking found footage and putting it in a much more limited area with a more focused story on just a small event.

So the insane but effective marketing, and the fact that once again we had a low budget horror film revolutionizing a particular sub-genre, made for a movie that everyone was talking about, people still do talk about Paranormal Activity, and even after all of these years it’s easy to see why. It had an impact on the horror genre and for a time became a standard bearer.

I understood, and understand still, all of that, yet more than ten years later I finally watched it for the first time. For those like me that somehow missed it, the movie starts with no fuss or muss. Micah meets his girlfriend Katie at the door with a new video camera. Katie has been experiencing paranormal activity (ha) since she was 8. Micah mostly just thinks the situation is cool, implying that he believes his girlfriend, but doesn’t actually seem to. Katie is completely freaked out. As Micah films their home slowly things begin to escalate until there is no doubt that something is horribly wrong.

Paranormal Activity is both a hit and a miss for me overall. Regarding story and characters, there is a lot to be desired. There is little explanation for what is happening to Katie, although that can be explained by the fact that Katie and Micah don’t know, it still leaves you curious and slightly disappointed.

Katie and Micah are also unsympathetic characters, though it does make them slightly believable. Micah refuses to take the situation seriously and keeps making matters worse. Everything he can do to put himself and his girlfriend at risk, he does. Katie is slightly more annoying however because she keeps insisting that Micah is making it worse and they need help, but is easily convinced to do nothing proactive. The fact is paranormal movies need a have a certain degree of the people just allowing it to happen to them, or the movie doesn’t happen. However, a balance must be achieved, and Katie and Micah don’t have that balance. They call someone early when hardly anything is happening, then let a series of insane things occur before finally calling again when it’s far too late. It doesn’t add to the movie drama it’s frustrating.

The movie is also highly dependent on suspense, in fact entirely. There is very little in the way of action because it’s just not that kind of horror movie. There is a slow build and scares caused by sounds and a little movement, not violence or action. The problem being there is a set pattern. Every night starts, you hear certain noises, something crazy happens. Each night has to get more intense than the last night, so you begin to prepare yourself. This is a mixed bag, some nights fell flat, some nights my expecting something more significant than the night before only got me more amped up and easier to scare. In the end, it worked, almost entirely, as far as I am concerned. It was tense, suspenseful, and had enough follow through to get me more often than not. Even with its age, it’s a movie that had me on the edge of my seat for a number of moments.

So we have a read on why it was such an “important movie” and my overall feelings both high and low, so what’s the bottom line? Well, genre fans should give it a go. Some people might find it a bit slow, and the scares might not be as effective, but it’s a solid movie. The ways the activity plays out are varied enough that even with the idea that there will be escalation each night it’s compelling. Also again, the fact that for a while it was such a standard bearer was earned, and it deserves its place in genre history, even if love for it fades a bit. For entertainment? It has good tension and scares with lackluster character and plot. Honestly, I want to say the scares make up for it, but because you are going back and forth in such a formulaic way of “annoying day, scary night, annoying day, scary night” it starts to hurt the overall experience a bit. The days aren’t so bad that it’s a bad movie, it just dampens the experience a little. I was both scared and entertained, if not rooting for the characters, so that makes a solid horror movie for me. Also, this movie was done well enough that I think age will not be an issue any time soon.

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