Paranormal Activities--a Little Too Normal

As someone who will probably never own a monster-size TV, I make a point of getting to the theater at least once every October for a scary movie on the big screen. I've watched the likes of "Frailty," "Skeleton Key," "Event Horizon," and "Slither" at home, but there's nothing like the sound and the fury of being in a theater for the full experience.

This year the movie to see is "Paranormal Activity," which has been called a "Blair Witch" in suburbia. The intended effect is definitely verisimilitude, as the film opens and ends with nary a credit, and consists entirely of the high-tech home camera recordings of Micah, the boyfriend of the demonically haunted Katie. (Micah and Katie are the real names of the actors.)

The couple are entirely believable--I feel like I know people just like them--if not altogether likable. And the plot unfolds gradually in an effort to maintain credibility by easing into the crazier scenes. (Spoiler alert!) It turns out Micah has bought the camera because some weird noises have been waking them up, and it emerges that Katie has been dealing with hauntings since she was eight years old. This latter tidbit affords Micah the leverage he needs to convince her he has a right to keep filming when she'd just as soon stop trying to catch the phenomena on tape. Micah's experimental attitude becomes a source of tension, especially when he brings home a Ouija Board, a course of action specifically mentioned by a psychic as one to be avoided, as it would just further provoke the entity.

The psychic is an interesting element. Katie calls him to the house, despite Micah's skepticism, because she is genuinely frightened by the strange occurrences. During his first visit, he establishes that the entity is not a ghost, as in the spirit of a dead human, but rather a demon. Because his specialty is ghosts, he refers the couple to another expert. Psychics referring out to specialists strikes me as a novel idea, and in the event it probably would about scare the piss out of me. Unfortunately, the demonologist is out of town.

The nighttime occurrences get more outrageous, the tension between the couple gets worse, and no one gets any sleep. The film-makers use a foreshadowing approach to making the supernatural scenes credible, so one night the camera records the blanket being pulled off of Katie's foot in preparation for the next night in which she's pulled off the bed by that same foot and dragged down the hall. As things are at this point completely out of hand, the psychic is called back. This time however he barely sets foot inside the door, so overwhelming is the demonic presence. He flees explaining that his being there will only make the demon angry.

"Paranormal Activity" had me for a while--I was in suspense and startle-ready. But over time the foreshadowing technique, which had the intensity of the demon's machinations increasing night-by-night, got tedious, so that by the final few night vision scenes my heart rate was back to normal. The height of the movie's effectiveness for me was when Micah poured baby powder all over the top of the stairs, and this allowed the couple to discover that the demon, which had three-toes like a bird or a dinosaur, had entered their room--but never left. Soon after this scene though the movie got into some very familiar territory.

The Ouija board, on its own, spelled out the name of a woman who was possessed, apparently by the same demon haunting Katie. Micah discovered her story on the Internet. This woman, Diane, died in the course of an attempted exorcism. I don't need to mention the name of the movie this brought to mind. Up to this point, there's been little by way of special effects too. But by the end we get a look at the possessed Katie making jerky motions, her face demonically distorted, and inhuman sounds coming from her. At every use of these digital effects, I was cast further out of the story. When the demonic Katie eventually screams to lure Micah downstairs, where she murders him, and the audience is allowed to discover what's happened only when his body flies back up the stairs and collides with the camera, well, I shook my head and thought about how unfortunate it was that a movie that could have been great had it exercised the discipline to maintain its subtlety throughout went too far and ruined the effect.

There was a lot of to-do about "The Blair Witch Project" for the back story, the Sci-Fi channel documentary and the website, all of which had many viewers believing they were seeing real footage of the actors' demise. I think these bells and whistles over time have diminished what is actually a really good movie; people forgot how good it was because it was "disproved." But I compare the ending of that movie with "Paranormal Activity" and find the latter wanting.

Of course, then I get home, find my girlfriend asleep on the couch, go into our bedroom, which is lit by these damn energy-saving green nightlights she bought so it looks exactly like the night vision scenes in the movie, and try to sleep as I notice a clicking noise under my bed. A cord? No. A cat? Both are on the bed. Wtf?