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The buzz surrounding writer/director Oren Peli’s popular 2007 “found footage” horror outing “Paranormal Activity,” has been, in a word, astronomical. In addition to the countless testimonials I’ve read on message boards and entertainment websites alike, scores of people from all walks of life have told me how brutally intense and genuinely frightening this film is, which may help to explain my reluctance to experience it for myself. Truth be told, my stance on public opinion isn’t what you’d call positive, especially when it comes to mainstream American horror. I believe the word I’m looking for is “jaded,” though I’m sure others would probably call it “unchecked film geek snobbery.”
Simply put, “Paranormal Activity” just isn’t that scary. Unnerving and a little eerie, yes, but definitely not scary. It’s kind of like the television series “Ghost Hunters” without the remote possibility that these supposed supernatural events are, in fact, the real deal. Take reality out of the equation and all you’ve got are unintelligible demonic mumblings, flaming Ouija boards, and piles of talcum powder all over your glossy hardwood floor. Maybe I’m desensitized to this sort of straightforward material, or, possibly, disembodied footsteps and slamming doors don‘t frighten me the way they frighten the general movie-going public. Neither does time lapse photography, for that matter.
Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston star as, well, Micah and Katie, an upwardly mobile couple who have begun to experience some incredibly strange phenomena within the cozy confines of their quaint suburban home. In order to properly assess and understand these nightly encounters with otherworldly forces, Micah decides to document their lives using a handy — and expensive — digital video camera. As the nights wear on and their collective sanity begins to crumble, the pair turn to the help of a psychic, who quickly concludes that something very evil and very, very angry has decided to focus all its energy on disrupting the couple’s tranquil existence. What‘s more, there doesn’t seem to be a way to stop it from completely destroying everything they’ve worked so hard to achieve.
Despite the overall lack of goosebumps generated during my screening of the film, director Oren Peli has done a remarkable job of turning his miniscule budget into something that looks and sounds much more expensive than it actually is. As a storyteller, he’s even sharper; not once over the course of the film’s breezy 90 minutes did my attention waver, an accomplishment that’s even more impressive when you consider the movie consists of one house, two occupants, and an extremely limited number of side characters. It’s a shame, then, that most of the scheduled scares are weak and unimpressive. But, like I said, that may have more to do with me than anything else.
As well as failing to send a single solitary shiver down my misaligned spine, “Paranormal Activity” also suffers from what I like to call Irritating Antagonist Syndrome, a disease which often plagues independent horror films of this nature. Micah Sloat is easily the worst offender; as his character becomes increasingly more aggressive towards their supernatural houseguest, you secretly begin to hope and pray that something incredibly awful happens to him by the end of the picture. Katie Featherston, though considerably less annoying than her co-star, doesn’t elicit much empathy, either. In all honesty, I couldn’t wait for these unruly demonic forces to beat the main characters furiously against the nearest concrete wall.
I seem to be in the minority here, as the box office numbers and endless positive word-of-mouth for “Paranormal Activity” contradict everything I’ve outlined here. Rumor has it that the film even scared the crap out of legendary director Steven Spielberg, who, from what I’ve read, made a few suggestions regarding some changes to the film’s ending. Perhaps I’m the abnormality, boldly declaring the film to be completely unaffecting while others shriek and scream in crowded movie theaters across the globe. “Paranormal Activity” might be the hottest horror ticket in town at the moment, but it takes a lot more than the generic gimmicks utilized here to make my skin crawl these days. A valiant effort that simply cannot sustain the hype.
Oren Peli (director) / Oren Peli (screenplay)
CAST: Micah Sloat … Micah
Katie Featherston … Katie
Mark Fredrichs … The Psychic