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Paranormal Activity might well deserve all the hype itís received for being the movie industry story of the year.  After all, in this awful economic clime, the idea that Paramount Pictures is rabidly nurturing the release of a full length, feature-ready film made for eleven thousand dollars sent a shockwave through rival movie companies.  Practically tangible is the movie studiosí glee at the disintegration of movie stars' bloated contract riders and film budget overruns becoming an endangered species.  The incredibly successful viral publicity campaign behind the film is the thing of note, as well, once again attesting to the power of movie fans and the internet.  I could get behind all these overdue and welcome changes in the way films are bought and sold, but what I canít support is all the noise over a scary movie that simply isnít very scary.

Paranormal Activity is a ghost story, plain and simple.  A camcorder follows a young couple, Katie and Micah, as they try to determine the source of some funny happenings around their (- incredibly spacious) home.  Using night vision to capture the reason why things are suddenly going bump around the house at bedtime, things grow ever creepier, until the two discover they may be in over their heads as ghostbusters.

One of the worst things any creator of a horror film taking place in modern day America (- or anywhere else with a Cineplex or Netflix) can do is to write his characters as if theyíve never seen a horror film before.  Paranormal Activity freely and egregiously cribs from The Blair Witch Project and Poltergeist, which doesnít help the filmís dťjŗ vu feeling at all.  Worse is when Micah, our ďheroĒ actually name-checks William Friedkinís 1973 classic, The Exorcist, because if anyone with half a brain suspected they were under siege by some sort of evil spirit, the logic would be to do whatever worked in those films, yet itís never attempted.  Faced with loudening footsteps in the dark, increasingly corporeal shadows, painful manifestations and inexplicably weird behaviour by the fairer of the couple, at no point does either partner ever call for Father Merrin.  The second I watched a door open and close on its own in my flat, youíd see the witch doctor, the Dalai Lama, a rabbi, an imam, a boatload of voodoo priestesses and the Pope in my apartment.  Heck, Iíd throw in that guy who stands in the background at the Today show carrying that big sign predicting the end of the world.  Instead, our doofy twosome relies solely on a lily-livered professor of the paranormal, who sets up the movieís game rules and one of its big plot holes.  Early on in the film, when the first evidence of ghostly shenanigans appeared, the sage wisdom of Eddie Murphy rang through my head like a bell.  All I could think of was his horror movies skit from 1983ís Delirious about what would have happened if he had been in the Amityville Horror:

Eddie: "Oh baby, this is beautiful.  We got a chandelier hanging up here, kids outside playing.  Itís a beautiful neighbourhood.  We ain't got nothiní to worry. I really love it, this is really nice.Ē

The Ghost: ďGET OUT!"

Eddie: "Too bad we can't stay, baby!"

Run! Just run.  Even if it availed them nothing, Iíd like to see the kids at least try to save their own hash.  While the professor informs the couple that whatever it is thatís causing their distress canít be avoided by leaving their home, it plays like pure plot device because weíre told in the same segment that this isnít the first time one of the characters has been the victim of spectral harassment, and yes, was able to be avoid a recurrence for years by getting as far away from it as possible.  Also, the good professor advises the couple that acknowledging the pooka is making it stronger; in other words, stop filming it.  Of course, what does Katieís lunkheaded boyfriend do?  Uh-huh.  Another film device absconded with in Paranormal Activity is courtesy of one of my least favourite films of 2008, Cloverfield.  Micahís assertion that their travails should be documented after directly being told to cut it out is a wire-thin excuse.  As was my complaint with Cloverfield, for any semi-sane person, less attention would have been paid to capturing YouTube moments and more to fleeing like oneís bum was on fire.  Even worse is Micahís macho chipmunk insistence that he can handle what is happening to them, even after the ghostie pops into bed and makes off with one of the characters.  Donít even get me started on the secondhand Ouija board this fool brings home.

Besides the above, the pacing drags between the filmís precious few frights and could have done more less about 10 minutes.  Yet, for its narrative failings, there is a lot going for Paranormal Activity; most notably director Oren Peliís ability to create a truly creepy atmosphere using lighting, sound and silence.  I welcome the return of the true ghost story; the kind that is meant to get under your skin and deliver frights devoid of buckets of blood, gory eviscerations and torture porn.  If indeed Paranormal Activity was made for eleven thousand dollars, then the creativity and resourcefulness Peli employs during those moments that do raise an eyebrow is indeed laudable.  There are some good (- intentional) laughs in the movie, as well, one moment in particular featuring the good professor doing exactly what the two crazy kids should have done long ago by turning tail and running for the hills after feeling the increased strength of the boogeyman.  I always enjoy a coward with common sense.

The LA-based Paramount executive who attended the public preview here in New York tried his best before the show to convince us how very terrifying Paranormal Activity was; relating that moviegoers had left other screenings unable to stand the pure terror of the film.  I canít imagine what he made of the New York audienceís laughter and occasional jeers when they should probably have been jumping or shrieking.  I reckon it was difficult for the crowd to get that scared over horror film protagonists who keep doing exactly what they wouldnít in a million years.  Still, if one leaves their disbelief at home, the film can be fun watched in a theatre for those few moments of actual surprise.

Is this the scariest film ever made?  Not in the least, but what Paranormal Activity is is a terribly interesting example of the will and imagination of a filmmaker to create over extremely limited resources.  While I canít cosign on the Paranormal Activity hype, Iím looking forward to whatever film Oren Peli will make after this.  I have a feeling heíll have a slightly larger budget to work with next time around. 



~ The Lady Miz Diva

Oct. 9th, 2009





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