‘Paranormal Activity’ a cut above a normal horror film (Movie review)

Usually I don’t give spoiler warnings in my blog posts, the reason being that this isn’t a movie review site, it’s an interactive site where we can talk about all details of a movie after we all see it. But for “Paranormal Activity,” I’m going to give a spoiler warning, because this movie depends so much on not knowing what happens next.

For the sake of a quick review, let me say that I admired the movie. I was somewhat scared, somewhat bored — but more scared. Ten years ago, I hated, hated, hated “The Blair Witch Project,” so maybe I’m a hypocrite for liking “Paranormal Activity” — which is in the same faux-found-footage-with-unknown-actors style — but I’d suggest it’s simply a better movie (to be honest, I can’t remember what I hated about “Blair Witch”; mainly, it just didn’t engage me).

If you liked “Blair Witch,” you’ll love “Paranormal.” If you hated “Blair Witch,” you might still like “Paranormal,” but I won’t guarantee it — the film does require that you check at least some of your cynicism at the door and go along for the ride. I have a feeling this movie will be more widely liked than “Blair Witch” was.

Now, consider yourself spoiler-warned.

Plot-wise, “Paranormal” is similar to “Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows” (which I actually liked) in that someone tries to capture the supernatural on video. In this case, it’s a 20-something couple that lives in a rather nice house (he’s a day trader; she’s a student-older-than-average who suspects — with good reason, it turns out — that she’s being stalked by a ghost).

I was kinda bored during the expository scenes (in particular, I would note that the psychologist’s appearances actually hinder the movie’s realism), but there’s a standard camera placement in this movie that cues us to breathlessly ask “What’s gonna happen next?” It shows the couple sleeping in bed. On the left side of the screen is the bedroom door, which leads to a hallway with a few more doorways, and a stairway leading downstairs. It looks like a normal house with the lights turned off, and that’s exactly why it’s kinda creepy.

In one of the first “sleeping” clips, the door moves a few inches on its own. And with each subsequent clip, it gets more extreme. It’s an almost stupidly simple approach, but I gotta say it worked on me (and most of the jumpy, laughing audience I saw the film with). I admit it: I watched these sequences with one eye on the screen and the other on the rows of people below me, just to watch them flinch.

Now, a couple issues, dear readers:

Paramount was briefly thinking of remaking “Paranormal” with bigger actors and more Hollywood polish (studio heads decided to release this version after they saw it with an appreciative audience). Although Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat are OK in the roles (they seem like real people, which is both good and bad in this case), I am curious what the film would’ve been like if it was remade with stars. Who would you cast in the lead roles?

Entertainment Weekly lists three alternate endings to the filmed ending, which was suggested by Steven Spielberg, a fan and supporter of “Paranormal.” What we see in the finished film is Katie throwing Micah’s corpse at the camera, then grinning at us with an evil, demon-esque look.

Did you like that ending, or would you have preferred one of these? (This list is from Entertainment Weekly.)

1. The original ending, where cops find Micah’s corpse and Katie holding a knife. When a door slams, an officer shoots her dead. EW says you can see the original ending by searching for “Paranormal Activity original ending” at YouTube. However, I just got a ton of parodies (some of which are pretty funny).

2. Katie slits her throat, the demon leaves her body, and she dies.

3. The demon-possessed Katie beats Micah to death with the camera — and we see it from the camera’s point of view.

Let me know your thoughts on these issues and also whether you liked “Paranormal Activity” in the first place.


Shaune's GravatarSo, as you know i have been waiting for your review of this movie and I am glad that you seemed to have a general ‘liking’ of the movie. I personally felt this movie was done really well. As I thought with Blair Witch, there is nothing scarier than what we can all make up in our own heads.
It is funny that you liked Blair Witch 2 because I thought the movie was terrible. A few years ago I rented it again because after a few years had passed I thought maybe I remembered it incorrectly. I was wrong. It still sucked…but this is about Paranormal Activity..
First off, I knew that this movie was fake, I had read all of the hype, and built it up in my own mind to be one of the greatest horror movies ever.
With that being said, I surprisingly was not let down. The ONLY thing that I didn’t like about the movie was the final 3 seconds. (SPOILER WARNING) When she lunges at the screen it is purely a hollywood scare… and I hate that. (although it did get a good final scream from the crowd, it just didn’t fit the movie)
What I liked about the movie was the anticipation… every time the movie faded into one of the night sequences it was like people stopped whispering, texting, or drinking their soda and looked up while holding their breath. It really did build the suspense. Oh, and the scene when she stands by the bed for hours on end? Priceless! The effect was even amplified by the fast foward of time which made her almost appear inhuman. The way her small body movement was jerky during the fast forward was very eerie.
About the endings, I had not heard of the one you mentioned about the camera beating… I am interested to see how that would play out with the rest of the ending. Surprisingly, I prefered the theatrical ending. (up to the last few seconds as I said) The body thrown to the camera was a huge scare and her appearing in the doorway was a great “no way!” moment even though everyone knew it was coming. What I think would have been the pefect ending would have been a mix of 2 of them. Katie walks downstairs, screams, Micah runs down, it is quiet. Entity walks up stairs, body is thrown at camera, Katie appears in doorway and walks to Micah. Katie looks at Micah and says ‘everything will be ok now’ and slits her own throat. Footsteps are heard, camera tips over and conveniently shows Katie’s face in a smile while still showing down hallway, closet light turns on and off, pause for 10 seconds of ‘dead’ footage.. movie fades out.
No matter what is said, this is still one of the scariest movies of recent times. ‘The Strangers’ is the only thing to come close in recent years.
Ps. I heard that this ending was made to leave it open for a possible sequal? If that is true, I will hate it from the start.
# Posted By Shaune | 11/2/09 5:15 PM

John Hansen's GravatarShaune—

I like your ending. I agree that it needed a bit more creepiness at the end, while also retaining that big Hollywood scare. I am a firm believer that you have to show the “monster” in a horror movie. Sure, you can do it sparingly and creepily, but you can’t not show the monster and then argue that “what you don’t see is scarier.” That is just lazy.

Your description of how the crowd got completely quiet when it cut to the bedroom scenes was exactly how it happened it my theater, too. That is impressive filmmaking when you can get almost every movie-goer in the country to be completely quiet and pay attention. Elementary teachers everywhere are jealous of these filmmakers. (Which isn’t to say that the movie worked on everybody; I saw a few people leave midway through, presumably out of boredom.)

Also, good point about the fast-forwarded “standing by the bed” scene. That is creepy to think that someone is staring at you for hours while you are sleeping.

You said the only thing you didn’t like was the last three seconds. How about the burning Ouija board scene? That was poorly done. If this was truly found footage, the documentarian wouldn’t have cut off the scene in the middle of the fire. This was done because the filmmakers couldn’t put out a fire that big without using a fire extinguisher, and of course, they couldn’t show that.

Also, consider the psychiatrist who was telling Katie he had to leave the house immediately. It was supposed to add a scare, like “Wow, even the expert on hauntings is freaked out.” But it wasn’t well acted, and it should’ve been cut out.

In fact, the acting and character development of the two main characters wasn’t all that great, either. No one noticed it because the film was so well crafted. But if we felt like we knew them better, it would’ve made the movie better. I think the blandness of the characters will be apparent on future viewings.

So while I believe “PA” is somewhat flawed, I acknowledge that it held my attention when the camera was pointed at the bed with that doorway on the side of the screen. I kept waiting for the demon to burst through the door (and I’m glad it finally did at the end, otherwise I would’ve hated the movie). That having been said, I would be completely bored watching this movie a second time, and that’s not the mark of a great movie.

Story-wise, “PA” didn’t have enough substance for a sequel, so I don’t think you have to worry about that. This was purely a mood piece. (However, it will certainly have imitators, starting with “The Fourth Kind” this week.)

As for the “beating with the camera” ending, the filmmakers scrapped that idea when they couldn’t figure out how to film it. Interestingly, the movie “Quarantine” had a scene exactly like that, and it played OK there. I’m glad they didn’t go with that ending, because it would’ve seemed like a copycat move.


# Posted By John Hansen | 11/3/09 2:36 AM
Shaune's GravatarTo argue the point ‘what you don’t see is scarier’.. the reason that I live by this is basically because of two reasons:
1. I don’t know if I believe that ‘monsters’ exist, but I do believe in aliens and the paranormal. With that being said, I on’t think that humans can imagine what aliens and the paranormal look like, or we all have a different idea. So when a film maker decides what it is going to look like, it sometimes ruins it for me. Like.. how would the blair with have worked if at the end it was a green faced woman with warts on her nose and a pointy hat? Lame. What about if it was an old lady that looked like my grandma? Lame. The way it was left, it looked exactly like what i had pictured through the whole movie and that was never ruined for me.
2. When they do show the monster.. it usually makes me cringe or laugh. Take cloverfield for example. The first time is saw this huge scary monster I nearly laughed. I felt the same at the beginning of ‘The Mist’ as well. It just looked fake.So, to talk about the Quija board scene. I guess the way that I feel they ‘got away’ with not showing the fire go out etc, is simply because only the footage ‘of interest’ is being shown. It is not complete raw footage, but instead has been cut up for the sake of a story. Although it would have worked better with a simple fast forward scene as done before, with the fire gradually burning out.
I agree 100% abou the psychiatrist scene. I thought the acting was poor with that whole piece. I did read online that there were some tweaks done and they added in the first scene earlier in the movie to keep pace. In the original it happens much later in the movie. Either way the actor was terrible. The whole crowd laughed when he was on screen.Regarding character development as a whole. I won’t argue that it lacked a bit, but how could it have been done betterw/o causing boredom? One complaint in blair witch is that it was boring, but it did build the characters a bit better. Here we see edited pieces of footage that, for as short as they are, actually do a pretty good job at establishing characterisics. Micah is funny, doesn’t take it seriously, he is a day trader, a tech geek etc. Katie is scared of the entity, has had a troubled childhood, is a student, trusts Micah, etc. So again, I don’t disagree but I don’t know of a better way it could have been done and kept the attention of the crowd.

I think you may be right about watching the movie for a second time. Although it left me with the feeling of “I want to know more”, it didn’t mean I want to watch it again. The reason it was good was the suspense and surprise which is now gone.

I will also be sing ‘The Fourth Kind’ although I don’t know if I will make the theatres. Something about it tells me that it is a boring movie with the ‘scary’ parts already shown on screen. When the trailer bores me, I get worried.

# Posted By Shaune | 11/6/09 3:42 PM

John Hansen's GravatarShaune–

If you can imagine a scary Blair Witch in your head, why do you expect that the filmmakers would not be able to? You respect their work so much, but yet you have no confidence in their ability to deliver a good reveal of the villain.

I assume you are saying that even though you can imagine a scary Blair Witch, you couldn’t reproduce it visually. If you tried to reproduce it in reality, it would just be a case of “No, no, that’s not what I envision.” It’s more of an ephemeral idea of a scary witch rather than something concrete. Similar to how we can’t exactly reproduce the images in our dreams, but that doesn’t make the dreams less effective. But even with that caveat …

You mention monsters (I use the term generically) that you didn’t like in “Cloverfield” and “The Mist.” But there must be some movies through the years where you thought the monster was effective. For me, the first example that comes to mind is “Alien.” The monster adds a lot to that movie, and it looks much scarier than anything anyone (other than H.R. Gieger) could’ve imagined up to that point.

I assume you aren’t advocating removing the “monster reveal” from ALL scary movies. I assume you are just saying it was OK in the case of “Blair Witch” specifically.

It sounds like we are mostly in agreement about “Paranormal Activity.”

You are right, if a preview is boring, the movie will almost certainly be bad. The only exceptions are movies that are too subtle to be communicated through a preview. But in the case of “The Fourth Kind,” they probably could’ve made a good preview if the movie was genuinely good.


# Posted By John Hansen | 11/6/09 5:22 PM