Viewing enjoyment affected by very un- "Paranormal Activity"

[two stars, or the "Swiss fist"--complete neutrality!]

Rarely do movie critics talk about the actual experience of seeing a film in the theater in their actual review. It happens sometimes, but it’s usually presented as an aside (the film broke, the crowd responded this way, the sound was bad, etc.) and not something that’s necessarily essential to the enjoyment of the film.

paranormal activity audienceFor this review, there is simply no way around it.

First off, the ultra-low-budget suspense flick “Paranormal Activity” has based its entire ad campaign around audience reaction. The trailers and ads show movie theater crowds jumping in their seats and screaming in horror while viewing the picture.

Secondly, Paramount has been rolling it out at midnight shows only in select cities (until this weekend’s wider release), so the viewing hour limits the movie to its intended demographic—college kids up for a late-night scare. It also means that with only one showing a night the shows sell out quicker.

This means the movie’s been playing to packed crowds who are already predisposed to buy into its premise of a young couple haunted by a demon who tape the bizarre happenings in their home on a video camera, especially if they watch any number of the night-vision "reality" shows based on supernatural phenomena on A&E or MTV.

One thing must be mentioned: Since 1999’s similarly themed “The Blair Witch Project,” audiences are smarter about the way their images and movies are presented, so filmgoers going in believing that this is documentary footage left behind by real people are probably few and far between.

paranormal activity 2009All of the above-mentioned points factor into how this movie played for me. To put it simply, it didn’t.

Is that the fault of stars Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat? Not really. The acting is quite naturalistic, considering some of the contrived things they have to do and say to hit the beats of the screenplay while convincing us that the footage is real.

Is it the fault of writer/director Oren Peli? Partially. His adherence to the premise that all video was shot by Micah and Katie is part of the movie’s fly-on-the-wall appeal, but it’s also its biggest stumbling block when it comes to plot. It’s hard to believe the couple wouldn’t leave their home or seek help outside of a psychic who leaves them high and dry, bolting from the front door because of angry demon vibes.

Mostly, it’s the fault of a friend of mine who sat two people down from me.

To put it mildly, the movie is a slow build. In fact, like “Blair Witch,” there’s barely any onscreen “action” at all. The whole less-is-more approach wasn’t working for my friend, who made it known about 20 minutes into the movie that something "better happen soon." As the movie wore on, it wasn’t simply whispers to his girlfriend or the guy next to him anymore, it was loud exhortations directed at the screen or to everyone else in the theater.

katie featherston paranormal activity 2009When I hate a movie, I’ll admit that my body language can give it away sometimes. I’ll even admit to a groan or loud sigh every now and then. For the most part, though, I try to keep that stuff in check.

When my friend started reaching across the guy between us to tap me on the leg and talk to me, I knew I was sunk. I waved him off and gave him dirty looks, trying to show my displeasure silently (while still concentrating on the film), but he continued to show his disgust with the movie out loud. (And with a great big "rock fist down.")

Here’s the funny part: For some of the film, I was right there with him. I agree with him that it was hard to get into and slow to get going. There is a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, however, that you must accept in order for the movie to work for you. My friend was “out” of the film early and stayed out. (Another friend was literally out—he left 30 minutes into the movie and decided to have a drink at a nearby bar until the movie was over!)

So the bottom line is—did “Paranormal Activity” work for me? No. That night, it didn’t.

paranormal activity 2009 I tried to concentrate on the movie, but my environment conspired to get the best of me. (Admittedly, I even dozed off for a second or two towards the middle of the movie and was jarred awake by my friend in kind of a “ha ha—gotcha!” moment for him.)

But this brings up an interesting question: If the suspension of disbelief is such a hurdle, how does the movie play in huge, sold-out theaters, where one would expect that more people means more hecklers? I would think there would be a lot of haters, but maybe the rest of the crowd would intimidate them into shutting up.

The theater I saw it in held about 100 people, fairly spread out, and there were waiters bringing food and drink orders and checks. Their mere appearance tended to draw me out of the movie a little more too.

Or—am I simply making excuses for a movie that I never really believed? There was an impressive level of skill on display in shaping the threadbare story around the reality-style limitations it required. But I only noticed these things occasionally and on a formal level, rather than actually getting into the movie on an emotional level.

Will the movie play on TV better because the cheapo camerawork suits the medium better or will it be impossible to stay involved in with interruptions galore at home?

I can only tell you about my experience and it was mixed at best. I guess this is one of those times where I’m glad I have a rating that doesn’t commit too firmly in either direction. Instead, it’s complete neutrality. I’m happy to give “Paranormal Activity” the Swiss fist and I’m happy to ask you about your experience seeing the movie.

Comment away ...


gavon 10 years, 5 months ago

I understand where you're coming from Eric, and some folks I saw it had similar reactions, but I'm a member of the camp that completely bought into the film. I didn't find it any harder to suspend my disbelief for "Paranormal Activity" than, say, "The Exorcist." Some of the plot contrivances are pretty minor compared to the fact that you're willfully watching a movie about an invisible monster from hell.

In my mind, they successfully addressed the not-leaving-the-house thing by repeatedly saying the evil force would follow them wherever they went. That, combined with Micah's idiotically machismo need to confront the demon and make a stand, worked well enough for me. Granted, not the most graceful of plotting, but there weren't any gaping holes in logic.

I also appreciated the deliberate pacing. It slowly turned the screws and had me wound up pretty tight by the end. I'm guessing you saw it at Fork & Screen, as did I. The audience at my screening was screaming where they were supposed to and, at least to my eyes, very into it.

Of course, I had more than a bucket of beer that night, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. All in all, I enjoyed the movie (and the beer) very much.

realfakeplant 10 years, 5 months ago

I saw this movie in a theater so packed my cohort and I got stuck in the front row. (We both still have neck aches from craning to look up.) This is the only movie I have ever seen in which the audience was actually screaming, and not just a few random screams from the weaker at heart, but a majority of the audience screaming at the more suspenseful scenes.

I can see how being at the fork and screen would detract a little from being absorbed by the story, this film definitely plays on that factor. You kind of feel stuck in that house with the both of them...scared out of your wits and not really knowing what to do about it.

slang4d 10 years, 5 months ago

Saw this last weekend in a VERY crowded large theater in Denver. Totally packed with 15-22 year-olds nonetheless. My verbal review to friends always starts with "people in the theater wouldn't shut up and it ruined the suspense." There was a kid two rows behind us that would say "oooohhh shhhh*ttttt "every time something even mildy eerie happened. Any reference to sex (such as "let's go to the bedroom") resulted in giggles and sometimes raging laughter.

Had I watched this movie alone at home on DVD, I suspect it would be one of the more frightening films I've seen. Mostly because the idea of an entity creeping up on someone in bed, while they're sleeping and should be the most safe, is seriously disturbing. The slow build up was necessary- if it had started with a bang, the ending would have been far less jarring.

Eric Melin 10 years, 5 months ago

A little background on the "demon haunting Katie all her life" story might have been nice too, now that I think about it. Even the simplest of screenplays are able to enrich someone's backstory as the current story is being told through comments, references, etc.

But look at it this way: Talking patrons and other distractions usually don't pull you right out of a film. This movie walks a tightrope between suspense and complete loss of credibility for its entire running time.

And don't even get me started about the way they ruined the end film in the trailer.

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