Paranormal Activity has more in common with The Blair Witch Project than just the found-footage conceit. Like BWP, PA has exactly one effective moment, right at the very end; the rest of it consists of twelve thousand four hundred and six grinding hours of tedium and motion sickness, so that by the time the effective moment rolled around I was so pathetically glad to see it that the effectiveness of the moment was lost in my appreciation of its effectiveness, if that makes sense. It’s hard to be scared when you’re sitting there going “OH THANK CHRIST AN EFFECTIVE PIECE OF FILM-MAKING AT LAST, HOW DID THAT EVEN ACCIDENTALLY HAPPEN.”
This is an old enough movie that you probably know the plot. Smug Marrieds – or, in this case, Smug Living-Togethers – Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) take to carrying a camcorder around with them, even under circumstances where it is wildly improbable that any reasoning human being would be carrying a camcorder, in order to record the bumps in the night they’ve been hearing. The bumps turn out to be a demon who is righteously pissed off by the blatant attempt to turn his existence into an episode of Jersey Shore – as, bless, who wouldn’t be – and disaster ensues. Sort of. Eventually.
Well, okay, boredom ensues. But it’s disastrous boredom. More like ennui.
Nothing happens for enormous chunks of PA. I spent a great deal of time going “Yep, there they are sleeping again,” and “I’m not going to have to watch douchebag sex, am I? I don’t want to watch douchebag sex.” That’s the first problem with PA, and the most serious (other than the fact that the characters are so utterly unsympathetic that I couldn’t even sustain interest in them long enough to hope they’d die) – it was made by people who don’t understand that suspense is not an end in and of itself. Suspense has to have a payoff or it dies fast. An audience in suspense is an audience who expects something noteworthy to happen at any moment; an audience who has been trained by the last half hour of the movie to expect that nothing interesting is going to happen in the near future is an audience in about as much suspense as someone watching laundry tumble in the dryer.
No, the interesting thing about PA, to the extent that anything can be salvaged from the wreck, isn’t the haunted house. It’s the feminist subtext, almost certainly inadvertent. It’s not bad enough that Katie has a malevolent supernatural entity out to get her. On top of that, she’s saddled with a boyfriend who patronizes her, trivializes both her fears and her boundaries, and dismisses her completely when he’s not whining for her attention like a cranky five-year-old. Micah does not even make a token attempt to hide the fact that he thinks Katie is a pretty piece of furniture whose function is to dispense sex and adoration on demand. He constantly refers to the house as his house, even though they both live there; even more disturbing is when he’s ranting, righteously indignant, about things messing with “my house and my girlfriend” without a single change in inflection to indicate that he sees a difference between the two things. They’re both his property. The demon’s bad for Katie’s mental health, but I’m not sure it doesn’t take a decided back seat to the utter toxicity of her relationship.
Either way, it’s an interesting commentary on how hard it is, as a woman in a patriarchal stronghold, to reclaim your power if no one will take you seriously long enough to concede that you might have had any power to begin with. The demon thinks it owns Katie. Micah thinks he owns her. She’s caught in the middle in a way that would be heart-wrenching if she weren’t so intolerable, and still manages to be icky and faintly disturbing.
So what’s the verdict? I don’t actually know what the purpose of PA was. If it’s a feminist allegory, it’s very well done, though it’s one of those movies that only becomes interesting in the abstract after you’re done with the horrific tedium of sitting through it. If it was a horror movie, it was an epic failure on pretty much every level. Either way, it only gets two stars, and only the last thirty seconds or so got the rating up even that high.