Damn you Internet hype!! You’ve snookered me yet again.
Let me be blunt. Paranormal Activity is not a good movie. It is, in fact, a bad movie. A very bad movie. I don’t care how micro its budget (and I’m sure from the way it looks it was downright Wicked Weasel in its micro-budgetedness), Paranormal Activity is a limp, boring, directionless, tension-free student experiment of a film. Blair Witch Project looks like The Shining compared to this piece of garbage. It makes Cloverfield look like Alien. The concept might have worked as a 15 minute Internet sensation, something cooked up by a couple of enterprising film students angling for a studio contract, but to release this non-entity on an unsuspecting movie-going public requires some serious balls on the part of Paramount. I never thought I’d say this, but we all owe Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay a collective apology. Come back to the Cineplex, guys, all is forgiven.
Not to go all Robert McKee on your asses, but the problem here is story. As in, there isn’t one. There is a situation, there are the vague outlines of a story, but there is no story. There is no progression from scene to scene, no build. The movie is utterly inert. And, because the hand-held structure requires that the big reveal wait until the final scene (and what a let down that is), the movie attempts to slowly (and I mean slowwwwwwwwwly) build tension, but its approach is to have the two moronic main characters (Katie Featherton and Micah Sloat, playing characters named, are you ready to have your mind blown? Katie and Micah) engage in the same tired arguments over and over, only a little louder and less effectively each iteration. At one point late into the proceedings my buddy Mat leaned over and observed that the entire thing had the feel of a college improv experiment, and he was exactly right. The one interesting scene is an encounter with a psychic (played by Mark Fredrichs), but it goes nowhere. The few hints and leads that could be used to provide a much-needed mythos to the tale are never pursued. And never has the hand-held camera gimmick felt less organic or believable. Katie spends half the movie kvetching about the presence of the camera and the other half remembering to first pick it up before plunging headlong down the stairs in pursuit of some thumpy sound in the distance. Please, filmmakers, by all that is holy, I’m begging you to retire this trite, tired, never-very-original gimmick. At this point, it’s the Joe the Plumber of indie movie cliches.
So how to explain the movie’s astounding 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes? A few theories. Paranormal Activity has no gore (naturally, since no action = no gore by definition) and there seems to be a backlash against gore among critics right now, as though the lack of gore is by definition a sign that the movie is aiming for something more noble than mere horror. Well, this one isn’t doing any such thing. The few anemic scares it does muster — shadows, muffled sounds, a sheet moving OH MY GOD ALL BY ITSELF!! — are as old as the medium of film itself. Also, ultra-low budget movies are graded on a serious curve, if only as a cudgel critics can use to beat the latest mega-budget monstrosity over its bloated CG head (“See what these guys did with just $20,000?”) The movie that Paranormal Experience most reminded me of was Open Water, another microbudget nothing that got hyped way beyond its station.
All that said, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple of recent movies that actually managed to make the hand-held thing work. The first is District 9, which, to be fair, only uses the hand-held device for its first half and does so quite effectively via the feed from a news crew following a government official on a visit to an alien internment camp. In that case, the hand-held documentary approach immediately and effectively sells the notion that what is being seen is real, even the aliens scavenging nonchalantly in the background. In his review of District 9, Outlaw Vern argued (convincingly, I think) that the shift in the movie from documentary to “third person” camera (or whatever you want to call it) signals the key transition in the film, when the protagonist moves (quite unwillingly, in this case) from being an observer to an active participant in the world around him.
Another couple of movies that made effective use of the hand-held camera technique are the Spanish horror film [Rec] and its English-language remake Quarantine. Both versions are good (Quarantine is almost a shot-for-shot remake of [Rec]), but I preferred [Rec] for its creepy Catholic undercurrent.