This marks the first time I have ever seen a movie alone in the movie theaters. I believe there were two reasons for this: 1) Nobody wanted to see this scary movie and 2) I secretly didn’t want anybody to join me so I could get the full “scare” effect I had been hearing about. Afterall, Paranormal Activity has been called “The scariest movie of all time”. Those are some serious shoes to fill, people.
Let me preface this review by saying that I LOVE scary movies. I love movies that keep me in suspense, set me up for surprises and scares, and downright give me chills. I love movies that convert me to Señor Poopypants. This movie did not fall short of fulfilling every one of those criteria. Yup, messy. However, the movie is not without it’s faults, well, one fault in particular. The problem is that this one fault nearly ruined the entire experience for me.
The studio ending of Paranormal Activity sucked. Hard.
But we’ll get to that in a second. I went into this movie knowing nothing more than what I had seen in the trailer and that it had been made for around $12,000 and by amateur filmmakers in San Diego, CA. These are both good things. The trailer managed to give me chills simply by showing actual audiences experiencing the film live in a theater and I’m a sucker for filmmakers who can make dynamite out of tic tacs. I had a rough idea of the film’s premise from the trailer* so I went in having a slight idea of what to expect. But what I got was a whole lot more.
First of all, the performances were MUCH better than I had anticipated. Unlike it’s oft compared predecessor, The Blair Witch Project, the performances in Paranormal Activity weren’t stilted, amateur, or fake. I was constantly impressed with how simple little interactions between the two actors felt natural, normal, and true. I’m not saying there weren’t moments I could see through the ruse, but the rest of the film kept these moments from removing me from the experience entirely. Hell, they had me fooled that they were actually a married couple until I did some research well after my viewing.
+1 point for Paranormal Activity.
Secondly, the direction was simple and unobtrusive. When you plan on doing a film like this where the actors play filmmakers, it’s easy to get wrapped up in challenging shots, intricate camera work, age-old Hollywood trickery, and cliché direction. The difference with Paranormal Activity is that they keep things minimal. The camera is often on a tripod or resting on a kitchen counter to document the action. The only time it’s handheld is when we’re running through the house or getting from point A to B quickly. The tripod set up in the bedroom scenes is such a great way to document those events and tell the character’s story for a couple of reasons. Firstly, both actors can be in the shot at the same time interacting with each other. Secondly, it makes post production SO much easier to work with static shots. I almost felt as though I was just a fly on the wall, witnessing all of this action, and not having to invest more than my imagination.
+1 point for Paranormal Activity.
Finally, the sound design, special effects and the arc of events was masterfully crafted. Taking numerous moments of terror in this couple’s lives and skillfully building each one to be more frightening than the previous helped to make this film a success for me. If I thought I was scared at the beginning of the film, I was downright petrified by the end to see what they had in store for me. This is how a true horror movie should be. So often we’re lead on this fantastical journey into some generic killer’s mind and unbelievably thrown around like a ragdoll with murders, plot, and effects. Booooo. The simple exponential curve of anticipation and terror combined have proven their effectiveness in this movie. Expound that with some stellar sound design and mysterious special effects and you have a real winner. For example, the moment where the couple was awoken by the demon’s scream has left it’s lasting impression.
+1 point for Paranormal Activity.
Now to the negative part of my experience: the ending. I HATE sell-out endings in films. Moments where all of a sudden your experience feels tainted because of the obvious choice a director made to listen to some producer or executives to change the original vision. Sure the ending as it stands may be more marketable and open ended for sequel options, but COME ON. The fact that the demon took over our lead’s soul and basically WINKED at the camera and to us viewers just blew my mind. The theater of patrons LITERALLY laughed when Katie’s face smiled at the camera laying on the bed with her. We have sat through a 1.5 hour movie, witnessing this couple’s struggles with a demon terrorize them with ever-increasing moments of abuse. We know that the demon has been able to control Katie’s actions by forcing her awake in the middle of the night, keeping her standing bedside for hours on end, and even making her walk outside to sit on a swing till the sun came up. Yes, the demon could control her, but do we really need to see the demon BE her? Can’t we just see more of the demon controlling her in a more violent repulsive way? Can’t we do without the demon smiling at the camera, basically making the audience a literal character in the film? I want to witness my fear, not be a victim of it. I couldn’t believe the director chose to end the film this way, the Hollywood way. Afterall, up to this point, the film had been the complete anti-Hollywood approach to film making and horror. Then I found out that the director DIDN’T choose to end the film this way originally.
-1 point Paranormal Activity, +1 point Hollywood execs.
Sure enough, when I got home, I did some research and found that indeed, the film had 2 original endings that had been seen at conventions and smaller venues in it’s prescreening phases but didn’t make the cut here in Hollywood. As the story goes, Steven Spielberg found this film, watched it at his home, experienced his own paranormal activity after viewing the film, and bought the rights to it straight away. It goes on to say that after screening the film multiple times and toying with the idea of recasting it, redirecting it, and making it more mainstream, that this would be a huge mistake. It would be like trying to turn a diamond into platinum — impossible and unnecessary. But, they did want to fuck with the original endings. The director, Oren Peli, had two original endings – which I believe I describe accurately below (please contact me if they are innaccurate) – both of which I would prefer over the “Acting Demon” ending they chose to go with.
Ending 1 (my personal fav): Katie wakes up in the middle of the night, stands by the bed for a few hours, then head’s downstairs. Micah wakes up to her screaming uncontrollably at the top of her lungs. He races down to see what has happened and begins screaming himself (this is all off-camera). Then you see her come back upstairs and sit by the bed, covered in blood, rocking for hours until daytime. Then you hear the neighbor call asking if everything is okay. A knock at the front door and the neighbor enters, screams at the sight of Micah’s dead body (still off-camera). Then another knock on the front door, this time it’s the cops. They enter, heard down stairs communicating into their walky-talkies, and also discover the body. They then head upstairs to the bedroom where Katie, still rocking, is waiting. She drops the knife and heads towards the bedroom door to supposedly surrendor no longer being under the demon’s spell. The cops see the blood, demand she freeze, and then shoot her when she disobeys. End of film.
I like this ending because it feels truer to the story and a lot less campy. No demon winking = awesome.
Ending 2 (still better than “Acting Demon”): Same as the above ending, but when Katie comes back up the stairs covered in blood, she’s holding the large knife, walks straight up to the camera and slices her own throat and dies. End of film.
I like this ending becuase it ALSO feels more realistic when compared to the ending that they chose. What I don’t like about it is that it’s still using the camera as a character. Why would she walk back up the stairs to cut her throat in front of it unless she was essentially winking at us.
Okay, end of my rant about the ending to this film. I obviously didn’t like it. But I still loved the film as a whole and would HIGHLY recommend you go see it before Halloween next week. I got the shit scared out of me more than once and that in itself is hard to do these days in horror. This film plays on a lot of our inherit fear of the unknown, undiscovered, and utterly possible. Oren Peli does an amazing thing with very little money and I am absolutely inspired. Trust me when I tell you that you will shit your pants when you see this movie. There are serious moments of utter fright and I loved every minute of it…well, every minute up to the last 5.
* A Note to Trailer Editors: NEVER PUT THE FINAL SCARE MOMENT OF YOUR FILM IN THE TRAILER. The fact you edited into the trailer the moment where Micah gets thrown at the camera RUINED a lot of the last moments of the film that build up to this BIG scare. Shame on you. Shame on you indeed.