So when a small independent film makes it big I want to see it and I want to love it. Yet if I don't like it what do I say? That's why I'm a little torn with Paranormal Activity. The film is good, it has some strong elements in it, but at the same time there's some awful groan-worthy moments.
It's a real mixed bag, and while the press is filled with descriptions of people being terrified, screaming, and running out of the cinema, there was a fair amount of laughter in the screening I was in, but then there were two moments where everyone leapt. Mixed bag indeed.
Micah, Katie's boyfriend, is fascinated by it and decides to try and capture it on camera buying a brand new digital unit to do just that. Coupled with a digital sound recorder he begins recording events during the night, filming the room, themselves sleeping, and the hallway outside.
The filming starts by capturing bumps and noises, and at first it all seems a little spooky and harmless, but then events begin to escalate and the fear sets in. There's something more sinister and serious happening, and the filming continues and captures some terrifying events.
The film opens with Micah trying out his new camera and while he tours us around his house Katie arrives home from work and the characters begin establishing themselves while they build the story to the point of the first night's filming, where the real power of the film comes.
My problems with the film began during these early establishing scenes for the characters and the plot, and really it was all down to the character of Micah. His behaviour was where the laughs from the audience began, and not only at the intentionally funny moments, or the moments I thought were meant to be intentionally funny, but at other moments when he was obviously there to try and reign in the paranormal aspects of the story and of the growing fear in Katie.
His behaviour was selfish, overbearing, bullying and rude, caring not a jot for his girlfriend. It doesn't seem feasible that she would put up with him behaving like this while she's going through the stress and growing terror of the events in the middle of the night.
It immediately shows him as a complete ass-hole and I, along with other members of the audience, felt pushed away from that character within the establishing scenes, and that made it harder for later events in the film to win me over and ultimately make me feel anything for the character.
There's also something else that happens during these early sequences, it's something I've heard people complain about with Blair Witch project but never really understood, the over use of the hand held camera.
People have said that there are times in Blair Witch where they are wondering why the characters would pick up and use a camera, and actually it's something I don't agree with. Isolated and alone in the woods with the intention of documenting what happens, knowing that you're lost and the thought creeping in that you might not make it out alive either because of lack of food or something more sinister, you might well be inclined to film absolutely everything.
However why would you pick up the camera all the time in your own suburban home, having the normal discussions with your partner? Well maybe I can believe that bit, but then picking it up for every question and interaction, picking it up when your wife is in great peril, hunched over on the floor crying hysterically? Is your first thought to pick up the camera before going to her, and if it is would she be willing to have you in the house any longer?
The use of the camera seems somewhat forced, and it's always the first thought of Micah. Now while this makes the film work, because after all we have to see everything, it seems unnatural at times and actually feels like it's distancing the two characters even more than Micah's annoying behaviour does. At times the reaching for the camera is hard to believe and the ultimate effect is to push me away from the believability of the film.
As a result I wasn't sucked into the events as much as I was Blair Witch Project, and not only did it make the character of Micah far from appealing, it also had an effect on the relationship with Katie and her character. I found it difficult to believe her character after she accepts him.
Saying that though Katie Featherston who plays Katie is very good and, apart from not dealing with living with an uncaring, using ass-hole, she's a believable character that manages to deliver the heightened emotion well during some of the more extreme moments in the film, getting through to us that she really is utterly terrified.
Talking about characters, the additional character of the psychic probably gave for some of the strongest acting moments in the film. His delivery is real and natural, and even when he's talking about the most bizarre of concepts, that of a demonologist, you actually believe him. When he says he can't stay in the house there's a real sense that he believes that, and that he would do whatever he could to help, but he's scared.
The decisions that the characters make in the film are atypical with the teen horror films both the straight ones and the parodies, the “don't go into the attic” moments, you know what I mean. Well the characters make loads of them and there are a few groan-worthy moments where you can hardly believe what they are saying or doing.
It's something I don't understand in films. If you've got characters in a modern setting then they have to have seen films, and films continually reinforce what to do and what not to do, and in some of these situations they just go totally against what conventional wisdom tells you what not to do.
Not just that, but they double back on choices they've already made, contradict themselves and are just plain stupid. Let me use an analogy to avoid giving things away - if you've got a plumbing problem and you phone the recommended plumber and he's busy, don't you ask for another recommendation or look up the phone book and get another? You'll know what I mean after you've watched the film.
However, and I know I've been quite tough on the film so far, there are some strong parts to it, and they are the scenes that take place at night when the camera is filming events in the house. These are built well from one night to the next, and the way they escalate and unfold really do keep you on the edge of your seat and provide the real scares and surprises.
They are the core of the film, and I can't help but think if the earlier part of the film was stronger and the audience invested more in the couple, particularly Micah, then these scenes would have been even stronger because you would be feeling so much more for the characters having connected with them and invested something in them.
During the screening the laughter was not during any of these sequences. There was some nervous giggling, a few jumps and sequels, and at two points near the end of the film, some bigger shocks, but the laughing was restricted to Micah and the interactions with Katie.
I was a little perturbed about the booming bass that built up before any event happens, because it's not a sound that the characters hear, it seems to be purely for the audience as a marker and to help build the tension up for the events that are coming. Again this is a moment that takes us out of the believability of this being “found footage” because there's a film score over the top.
I can't say too much about the ending, but it's a real mixed bag again. The synthesised voice to camera moment is just a little bit too silly and again knocked me away from the story. Yet the surprise during the final event is a good one, even if the final moment once again has a little of the standard to it and detracts from the lost footage feel, yet it still provides a stock shock.
Interestingly the titles are very sparse and, if the cinema plays it right, it'll keep you on edge after the titles have gone.
Paranormal Activity does not reach the hype that I've been hearing from America for it, and the rest of the audience laughing at Micah and his relationship with Katie showed that it wasn't just me that felt that.
Yet despite the failings in the early part with the characters and their erratic choices, the night time footage is what provides the scares and the high levels of tension, and for the most part they work really well and do just that.
It's a good film but there are quite a few flaws that stop it from being the great horror and scare film it really could have been, but you'll still enjoy it and get a good fright from it, even if the spider scene might be the most uncomfortable moment and you'll have a perfectly fine nights sleep afterwards.