There are enough spoilers in this review to warrant a warning to anyone that has not yet seen the film...sorry.
When you have a movie such as Paranormal Activity, you are going to run into a wide variety of reactions from an even wider variety of people. Whether it be genre fans, or just your average casual moviegoer, it is almost fascinating what one person finds frightening and another person doesn't. Much like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity is a story of success, a story of simplicity delivered through a means created by budgetary restraints and a desire to make a movie no matter how many roadblocks were faced. And of course, the desire to scare people.
Written and directed by Oren Peli, Paranormal Activity has a plot as basic as my cable. Katie (Katie Featherston) and her semi-long-term boy toy, Micah (Micah Sloat) have been experiencing...ahem, some Paranormal Activity (I suck) when they decide that they want to try to capture these ghostly-goings-ons on video tape. Of course, they do capture something and this something they capture might not be the friendliest of ghosts, and things escalate for Micah and Katie as they try to deal with this unwanted visitor.
Easy enough, right? Sure, but here's the thing, the ghost, or spirit, or whatever, has been following Katie around since she was a little girl, creating havoc for her throughout her entire life. With Katie dealing with such torture for so long, she has grown very fearful of this invisible antagonist, almost to the point where she knows not to instigate it anymore than need be. Micah, on the other hand, is fascinated by this unseen menace and not having the same history as Katie has had with this haunting, he has no real fear of it, nor any sense of respect for what it is capable of...whether or not Katie warns him before hand.
This is really where some of the strength in Paranormal Activity lies, the characters are extremely well written and very realistic in many ways that some would not like to admit. You are seeing very broad typical characterizations of the average man and women, and how they interact with one another, especially when faced with trauma.
Katie is a little whiny, needy, and open to any sort of suggestion, that isn't coming from the man she loves, Micah. She will only rely on him for protection when she chooses - shuts him down when she doesn't need it and she is easily irritated by anything he does, almost to the point that it is unfair to Micah. Katie has every reason to be scared by what is going on in a way since she has been plagued by this menace for so long, but it is unfair for her to think Micah can fully understand what is going on, when this is his first exposure to such events. The fact that she didn't share her past haunting experience with Micah until she has already moved in with him and it started happening to them both shows her selfishness also.
Micah is not afraid of the haunting's so much as he is fascinated by them. It is his idea to set up the cameras and even when Katie constantly warns they are making things worse, he still continues to use them. Micah is all for communicating with the ghost via a Ouija board no matter what the warning are, and much like a child, he almost sees it as fun at first and it shows his immaturity. When things do escalate, he feels it is up to him to take care of the situation, he feels he must protect his girlfriend and his home without any help from anyone else. Like most men, including myself, Micah is slightly egotistical and his ego clouds what would be better judgment for the fear of not being in control. He constantly promises Katie that he will figure this out for her and he really does try to, because he cares about her, but he also doesn't want to not be in control of the situation as much as he wants to protect her.
Now, do I think the film is scary? Paranormal Activity has been heralded as the scariest movie of all time, or of this decade and so on, whatever. How any movie can live up to that expectation is unfair to say the least. Especially when "average asshole Joe" has no clue about the movie outside of it being referred to as the "scariest movie of all time," then seeing Paranormal Activity and ultimately being disappointed by the lack of visual apparitions. This is the same shit that happened with Blair Witch...many disliked it saying that it wasn't scary because they didn't see anything, because nowadays, people are so used to seeing everything, that when challenged to use their imagination, they are not capable of doing so.
What you are seeing in this film is what I would guess you would see (or not see) in real life and that is what either frightens people, or completely turns them off. For me, I find the simplicity of a door shutting by itself, or a chandelier rocking back and forth from an unknown force to be scary, as opposed to being shown an actual ghost or having a creature be shown. Being shown something can be scary too, if done well of course, but it is easier to distance myself from the events in a movie like The Orphanage, for example, than it is a film set in a normal everyday house with a faceless assailant. This almost goes back to what worked in the first half of Jaws; it was more frightening to see the results and actions of the shark, without actually seeing the shark itself. You know what's there creating the chaos without seeing it, and it's what it is capable of that is the most effective aspect.
Some can say you do not see anything in Paranormal Activity, yet when you do in the form of a possessed Katie; it is the worst part of the film and seems like an unnecessary sight used just to put a face to the menace. Putting a face to the menace to appease moviegoers who want to see "something." That is really my only complaint about the film and I much prefer the alternative endings that I have seen/read about, but it is what it is. I found Paranormal Activity to be quite scary and it is a scary that has lasted with me for a few days...it is easy to relate to the events because they are plausible and they can happen to you in your natural setting. I will forever be creeped out by the often-used static camera shot from inside Katie and Micah's bedroom, waiting to see what was going to happen next in what area of the hallway...or seeing nothing, and only hearing loud bangs or footsteps, not knowing what was to come from those noises.
As I have expressed in a recent post, I am extremely happy that Paranormal Activity has done so well and this is the second film in ten years to come from nothing and sweep the nation. This film is the opposite of Hollywood and for it to do well almost balances things out in the big picture. It takes thing back a little and shows that you can do so much with so little, and I don't completely mean money wise either so much as I mean what can be done to scare people with simple film making techniques. Whether or not it scared you is one thing, but it has put a little poopie in a whole lotta moviegoers pants to make it one of the most successful films of the year...so it has done something right. Word is born.