It would be wrong to call Paranormal Avtivity the most overrated movie of the year, although that’s the first word that comes to mind for me. But just overrated, mind you, not most overrated. It came about through a unique and truly admirable marketing campaign by Paramount. They released the movie in 13 college towns through the United States, and asked people in those towns to go to the movie’s website and vote if they would like to see it in multiplexes. More than 200,000 people did, so it was set for a wider release, with the same expansion plan. This is an outstanding release program that provides much-needed opportunities for small films like Paranormal Activity. My problem with the movie is not its brilliant and effective simplicity, but the fact that first time director Oren Peli seems to have been blinded by that simplicity the same way that Hollywood movies are blinded by big names and special effects.
Possibly in his effort to make his film and simplistically realistic as possible, he forgot about other aspects of the story. The writing, in particular, is some of the worst I’ve seen in recent memory.
Now, of course when I say the writing’s bad, believe me, I don’t mean that Katie and Micah, who play themselves, are not believable as a real couple. Definitely they are, and the dialogue throughout is thoroughly realistic and believable. And yes, the movie is scary. Calling it the scariest movie of all time, which I've heard, is simply preposterous, but it is definitely one of the scariest movies of the year. It’s the character arcs in the movie that don’t make a single scrap of sense.
But before I explain why, let me give you basics of the plot. Katie is a college student who has suffered from paranormal hauntings for most of her life. She and her boyfriend Micah are living together in San Diego, and they determine to discover once and for all what’s causing the hauntings that she has been experiencing since childhood, or at least find some way to make it all stop. And they can’t just move somewhere else, by the way, because it’s not a haunted house movie, it’s Katie who’s haunted.
The movie begins just like The Blair Witch Project, and with that my comparisons between the two movies will stop, because the only other thing they have in common is their presentation as found-footage and their unique marketing campaigns. But at the beginning of the movie, Micah is filming himself, just taking random footage around the house, and then of Katie when she arrives home. Through their casual dialogue, we are gradually introduced to what’s going on with the paranormal activity.
The botched writing becomes almost immediately clear, as both of them treat the whole issue like they’re investigating some cheesy ghost story that their kid brother heard at summer camp. Neither takes anything seriously, especially Katie, who acts like Micah is making a big deal out of nothing with the nice new video camera. She even makes a joke at one point when a light mysteriously goes out. This is not the behavior one would expect from someone directly confronting for the first time the supernatural occurrences that have been plaguing her for most of her life. Then again, she also introduces herself to a psychic early in the film as an “English Major and Spanish Minor,” and explains that she has hopes to be a teacher. Not long after, during an intense study session, she stammers out “I want to be a teacher” in broken, halting Spanish. Keep in mind, she’s a graduate student. The Spanish Department at UCSD surely will not be impressed.
But no matter. The real problem is that during the three weeks that transpire during the movie, they both go from near total indifference to - well, I won’t say where they end up, but let me give you an example of how it all goes wrong.
[caption id="attachment_61225" align="alignleft" width="388" caption="By the way, can I nominate Micah for the "Most Patient Boyfriend of All Time" award?"][/caption]
They’ve been together for three years, and it was well after they had moved in together that Katie ever bothered to tell Micah that she’s been haunted for most of her life. Still, he bought a new video camera that must have cost at least $2,000, probably more, and spends every waking (and sleeping) minute of the next three weeks doing nothing but filming and investigating and researching and supporting her and doing everything possible to help her solve this problem. Three weeks, ladies and gentlemen. Think about that. When she asked him at the beginning of the movie how much money he spent on the camera, he responded, “About half as much as I made today.” He’s a day trader, I understand. So if he is making that much money, how much do you imagine he gave up over three solid weeks of not working in order to completely dedicate himself to helping Katie?
This all comes into clear focus one day when he brings a Ouija Board over, against her wishes, and she absolutely flips out. Yes, she had specifically asked him not to do it, and yes, she had every right to be angry. But she literally spends a third of the entire running time screaming and cussing at him, telling him to get the f*** out of the house and that he’s totally powerless and has no idea what he’s doing and he doesn’t even care about her and he’s done nothing to help her and he’s the problem and blah blah blah blah. At this point, for me, the formidable scariness for the rest of the movie completely disappeared because Katie had become such an unlikeable character, and unlikeable characters represent the death of suspense in horror films. Nevertheless, Micah apologizes profusely, just about begs on his hands and knees for her to allow him to help her, and even goes so far as to get on camera and repeat an “I-promise-to-do-whatever-Katie-wants” speech until he does it to her liking and she allows him to continue putting his entire life on hold for her. He sticks by her minute by minute despite her spectacularly callous ingratitude. I don't even know if the movie should be categorized as a horror film. This is a love story.
Now the only reason I explain the movie’s deficiencies in such detail is because it’s getting great reviews and it deserves them. It has a microscopic budget of I think about $15,000 and makes the simplest of sound and visual effects incredibly effective, but the characterization almost completely ruined it for me, especially all the time that Micah takes trying to talk Katie down and think clearly so they can figure out what’s going on. She’s been experiencing this stuff since she was 8 years old, ladies and gentlemen. She should be the one comforting him.
Nevertheless, despite my personal differences with the movie, it is an outstanding independent film and I would really like to see small movies like this given the same chance that this one had. Paranormal Activity has the power to pave the way for more independent creativity in the movies and it should be praised for it. With all of the competitiveness and high-dollar monopolization of the movies, it’s not much less than a miracle that something like this could make it to a national theatrical release, and I hope that we see it happening more and more in the future. As a film, Paranormal Activity is already a stupendous success, but I tend to feel a little disappointed to think that a few simple, logistical conversations about the characterization could have made it immeasurably better.
The Bean Meter