12 years ago, a little film called The Blair Witch Project polarized both the horror community and the movie-going public. You either loved it or hated it; there appeared to be no middle ground. 8 years after its release, the inevitable comparisons began when Paranormal Activity made its debut. Hand-held cameras, allegedly based on a true story…you get the idea. Hailed as “the scariest movie ever,” Paranormal Activity proved once again that you don’t need a lot of special effects to sell a horror movie. And no, you do NOT always need to see the monster. What you need more than anything is a decent story–this is not bias just because I’m a writer. No amount of CGI wizardry is going to impress me if the story is, and I quote, “a steaming pile of gopher shit.” Because I’m also an editor–it’s my job to recognize crap when I see it. Any writer needs to make sure that they maintain the internal logic of their story; once readers/viewers start to question a character’s actions or reactions, you have a problem.
Katie is likeable and believable. Her escalating fear makes her very sympathetic. Micah, on the other hand, is a flaming douchewhistle. Occupational hazard, perhaps, since he’s a day trader. Anyway, it’s his macho bullshit and complete disregard for Katie’s feelings that escalate the activity, but it’s completely in character for him. Let’s be honest, he got what was coming to him. The activity itself, and Katie’s response to it, works well to create a sense of terror that keeps building as the attacks become more intense. The final scene, in which Katie comes back upstairs with the heavy, thudding steps of the demon, is frightening because you know it’s Katie, but you also know that those are the same footsteps Katie and Micah have heard for several weeks. The idea that Katie and the demon have merged at last is especially terrifying when you consider that this entity has plagued Katie since she was 8 years old and, unlike in a traditional haunting, she cannot run from it.
Paranormal Activity almost succeeded (and yes, I’ve seen it before). But you, gentle reader, know by now that I am a curmudgeonly and cantankerous old woman when it comes to horror, and so you surely know that something about this film pissed me off (aside from the fact that it was overly-hyped and generally overrated). And so it is this: if your girlfriend is nearly catatonic, bleeding profusely from having clutched a cross with all her strength, TURN THE DAMNED CAMERA OFF AND DRIVE HER TO THE HOSPITAL. Especially when she does a complete 180 from begging that the two of you get in the car and leave, to insisting that everything will be fine if you just stay. There is no justification for Micah’s inaction. He had been convinced enough to leave–this doesn’t convince him that things are way beyond his control and she needs to be under some sort of professional supervision?
It’s really only in those last 10 or so minutes that the film collapses. This happened in another recent and otherwise excellent film, The Last Exorcism. In truth, Paranormal Activity could have ended with the shot of Katie lying in bed, having convinced Micah that she doesn’t want to leave after all, with that chilling smile on her face. Let the audience imagine what will happen. It’s probably scarier than anything the director could have committed to film. On the other hand, I’ve seen the alternate ending, which in my opinion was far creepier than the theatrical one due to the fact that you never see Micah’s body, nor Katie’s “demonic” face. The demon takes what it wants–Katie’s soul, one can assume–by forcing Katie to slit her own throat. It’s simultaneously more subtle and more shocking than the theatrical ending. At this point I could launch into a tirade about test screenings and, as Roger Ebert has noted, how many endings they have ruined as a result. Another time, perhaps. Ignoring the ending, Paranormal Activity is a good horror film, and we could use more like it.