Apparently, $15,000 doesn't buy a whole lot of anything when it comes to making a movie nowadays. Well, except for a pile of underwhelming, barely frightening video footage. While $15,000 probably wouldn't pay the craft services bill on most Hollywood productions, that's all it took for video game designer-turned-filmmaker Oren Peli to turn a decent horror movie concept into one of the genre's biggest success stories. For that reason alone, Peli deserves some credit, but I'm not willing to get any more excited than that because Paranormal Activity, his cheapie flick about a couple terrorized by a demon in their own home, is amazingly dull and rather lacking in inventive scares.
Taking inspiration from previous "found footage" horror movies like subgenre pioneer The Blair Witch Project and the brilliantly terrifying [Rec], Paranormal Activity is yet another fictionalized fright flick that attempts to immerse us in a supposedly real situation. Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat play characters with the same names (another attempt to sell the potential reality of the movie), a loving couple who live in a large and spacious house that routinely falls victim to bumping sounds in the night. When the movie begins, Micah has purchased a hefty video camera in hopes of documenting their shared life and possibly capturing some spooky paranormal activity in video form.
Katie isn't all too enamoured with the idea, but Micah is the kind of guy who keeps pushing until he gets his way, so the camera stays. Oh, and there wouldn't be a movie without the camera, so that likely contributed to the decision to let it stick around. From this point on, Micah wears the camera like some sort of bionic eye, carting it around the house and annoying Katie in the process. Then, when night falls, Micah sticks the camera on a tripod at the foot of their bed and leaves it running all night long. It is here in these bedtime moments that the paranormal activity begins, but this demon sure knows how to take its time making an impression.
Lights switch on, the bedroom door closes, and heavy, pounding footsteps are all this evil entity has to offer, until it finally cranks up the intensity in the movie's final moments. But even then, Paranormal Activity is only good for a decent jump or two, much like an unforgettable roller coaster that feels all too safe. Call this Horror Lite. Peli is always far too eager to end the potentially scary stuff before it reaches uncomfortable levels, which means that a single movement of the door or a few powdered footsteps are intended to sustain us audience members for considerable amounts of time until the next night sequence occurs.
In between the sparse scares, Katie and Micah sit around during the daytime and review the footage from the night before. Since the footage isn't very scary the first time around, watching it a second time is simply boring and merely represents a lazy way of eating up screen time. Katie and Micah also pass the time by talking about the footage and occasionally getting on each other's nerves, which might be somewhat interesting if I remotely enjoyed the company of either person. But since both actors turn in such weak, unconvincing performances, Katie and Micah never feel real and any attempt at an emotional connection with either of them is futile.
There are only three other characters in the movie and each of them only occupy a few minutes of the footage. Amber Armstrong plays Amber (what a surprise!), Katie's friend who comes over to the house a couple times. Micah doesn't appear to have any friends outside of Katie, which isn't surprising when you consider that the guy is an annoying jerk. The other two characters are a psychic (Mark Fredrichs) hired to give Katie advice about the demon in the house and a woman named Diane (Ashley Palmer, the only one to get a different name), who supposedly went through a similar demonic situation that has now been documented on a website Micah finds. Out of the three, Armstrong has nothing to do, Palmer is only onscreen in grainy footage for mere seconds, and Fredrichs is laughably awful.
So much for getting a break from the frustration that is watching Katie and Micah engage in wandering conversation. We're stuck with them for the rest of the movie, trapped in their home and waiting for the next scare to hopefully liven up the proceedings. But there is always Peli, lurking in the shadows, ready to pull the plug before anything gets too frightfully out of hand. His lackadaisical approach to the crucial horror elements ensures that the movie remains stuck in a rut, unable to make a truly terrifying impression. Paranormal Activity is built on a concept that is filled with potential, but it squanders any possibility of greatness with its weak cast and cookie-cutter scares. With his movie achieving such gargantuan financial success, I doubt Peli is feeling any regrets about his hollow fright flick. But for myself, I am entirely unenthusiastic about Peli's contribution to the horror genre. He came, he saw, he conquered, he made a bad movie.