I don’t understand the success of Paranormal Activity, which has officially replaced the Saw flicks as the Halloween franchise to beat. Admittedly, it’s turned out a bit of an improvement, but it seems to me the original movie is little more than an assemblage of stock clichés inherent to the found-footage gimmick. Come to think of it, maybe the issue lies in the subgenre itself. Consider these five problems, which have plagued first-person thrillers since their inception.
One: the premise changes, but the plot never does. Whether they pertain to a witch, flesh-eating ghouls, or an alien creature, all movies of this kind follow a group of ordinary people who whine and bicker until the supernatural threat appears, causing them to whine and bicker louder. In Paranormal Activity, our grating protagonists consist of newlyweds (Katie Featherson and Micah Sloat) who find out their home is haunted and proceed to film its endless “gotcha” scares instead of running away. In fairness, writer-director Oren Peli provides a reasonable excuse as to why the young couple doesn’t skadoodle (the ghost would follow them anyway). However, we never find out how the husband knew to record their unexceptional suburban existence even before the titular paranormal activity.
Two: our heroes are self-obsessed idiots who like to film their every mundane conversation. Owing to the limitations of the found-footage gimmick, if the protagonists don’t document themselves having a spat or discussing their childhood with a psychic (Mark Fredrichs), we have no way of knowing it happened. As a result, we get countless scenes of characters relaying expository information in front of the camera when there’s no good reason for it to be recording. Paranormal Activity stretches our suspension of disbelief to its breaking point when Micah shoots himself editing footage he acquired the prior night. What, is he preparing a “making of” featurette for the special edition DVD?
Three: our heroes are ripe bastards who’d rather film their loved ones getting killed than aid them. Consider the scene in which Katie screams for help and Micah runs back to get his camera before attending to her. This strikes me as grounds for divorce. Come to think of it, the man’s unceasing callousness borders on abuse: he brings a Ouija board into the house despite promising not to, uses semantics and atheist righteousness as excuses for breaking his word, and then blames his wife for being haunted after spending weeks antagonising the ghost. In short, the guy makes Paranormal Activity unbearable to watch, or was that the shaky cam?
Four: the handheld cinematography gives me nausea. Why is it characters in first-person thrillers can never hold a camcorder still to save their lives? Granted, the crooked frames and sudden movements contribute to the illusion of amateur footage, but it seems to me that, in the age of YouTube and vlogs, the average twelve-year-old handles his or her camera phone with more proficiency. Shaky cam becomes all the more problematic in a haunted house setting, as we keep wondering why our Parkinson’s-afflicted protagonists don’t just use the walls and furniture for support or, you know, set down their device somewhere and let it roll. After all, the night sequences, in which Micah does exactly that, prove by far the most exciting.
Five: we know exactly where the whole thing’s headed. Eventually, our point-of-view character has to stop filming. Given he or she can’t so much as pour a bowl of Fruit Loops without recording it (see problem number two), one can reasonably surmise the final shot will feature his or her death. By the same token, it’s safe to assume our questions regarding the supernatural threat will be left dangling because our heroes would have to figure things out for the answers to appear on screen, which, in turn, would make their deaths less likely.
To be fair, Paranormal Activity doesn’t conclude quite the way one might expect, largely because executive producer Steven Spielberg retooled the final scene to give it more punch. The basic rules are followed, but the devil, as they say, is in the details. In fact, the same can be said of the whole film, which features genuinely creative set pieces but little in terms of plot, characters, or depth. Like so many of its kind, Peli’s first-person thriller basically amounts to a campfire tale. Now, you’ve heard one of those; you’ve heard them all.