The Takedown : Paranormal Activity

I’m not even going to lie – I generally don’t like scary movies. When they’re really good they fill me with a sense of powerlessness and dread that sticks with me long after the fact. I tend to, as a rule, avoid them. But when I see a great one like The Shining or The Ring I can see how the film is designed with the sole purpose of making me feel fear, or terror, or horror, I get a thrill and can appreciate how it’s doing all of those things.  On the other end are the truly bad horror movies like Jason X or those awful Leprechaun[/easyazon_link ] films. These are the ones filled with jump scares and crappy acting and pointless gore and make me want to laugh and jeer instead of run and hide. But even then there’s a particular art to those, something that overcomes blatant deficiencies to show the audience a good time anyway. Then there are movies that don’t do either of those things – like Paranormal Activity. These are the ones that death march joylessly across the screen for too many minutes and make you feel like gulping bleach.

It’s not just that Paranormal Activity is a bad movie, because I watch those all the time. No instead it’s that it manages the trick of also being a rotten horror movie, which is actually really hard to do. Horror movies are at their core a genre flick. There are particular rules that are observed that help the film function. They’re not hard either. A million low budget horror movies come out every year (citation needed) that manage to do a decent job of either being scary, or at least being funny. But in the case of Paranormal Activity, with the nonsensical plotting and genre breaking characters they’ve managed to commit the greatest horror movie sin of all:  they bored the audience.

No need to call an exorcist though – this is the Takedown.

The Plot

Almost the entire movie looks like this, and this looks like beef and cheddar.
Almost the entire movie looks like this, and this looks like beef and cheddar. Which is why I’m not going to use any more screenshots.

Alright then, let’s talk about the plot. Paranormal Activity starts on a sunny day in southern California when our 2 leads Katie and Micah (or as I’d prefer to call them Thing 1 and Dipshit McGee) move into a classic San Diego McMansion. Since they have been together for a while, and have just purchased a house, Katie decides that now is a good time to tell Dipshit McGee that a ghost follows her around. Honestly I think that would be something you bring up on the first date, like favorite Kama Sutra poses, but I’m old fashioned. Anyway, he decides that the best way to convince her that everything is like, totes fine, is to set up a camera at night and see what happens.

As much as I wanted the camera to only capture a hobo enthusiastically urinating into their bushes, it instead captures weird goings on, like Katie staring at Micah all night along with bangs and creaks in the house. Since new noises in your new house are clearly the sign of the devil Katie decides to call in a psychic. They look around the house, admire the hardwood floors and then tell Thing 1 and D. McGee that yes – the Katie is haunted, and apparently the ghost feeds on negative energy. Since the psychic is obviously on discount Canadian narcotics, Micah decides that they are stupid, with stupid ideas to match their stupid face. Micah being, as we have established previously – a dipshit.

Next Micah has the great idea to go to Toys R Us and buy a Ouija Board. Thing 1 takes 1 look at it and freaks out, because letters printed onto cardboard is obviously the scariest (non-Teletubby) thing to ever happen. The two of them leave but conveniently forget to turn off the camera, and we get to see the cheap plastic ring whatever move across the board all by itself. So spooky! It really puts the “special” in “special effects.” We don’t get to see what it spells out, but let’s go ahead and assume it’s asking for a quiet night in to Netflix and chill.

OMG! They left powder on the ground! Get my sniffin' straw!
OMG! They left powder on the ground! Get my sniffin’ straw!

Later when they get home, DipShit McGee spreads powdered sugar all over the floor before they go to sleep. Wouldn’t you know it? Steps appear from an invisible creature who is probably coming to check on the status of that Netflix + chill request from before. Since Thing 1 and What’s His Name ignored its request, it throws a bit of a tantrum which wakes up the sleeping idiots. They follow the sugar footsteps, hoping to find Santa Claus but expecting ants. The steps lead them to the attic where they find a picture of Katie that was apparently lost in a house fire when she was young.

With all of that exposition out of the way, they decide that what they really need is a demonologist. The one they know is apparently spending a long weekend at Club Med. Why they know a demonologist is beyond me, but whatevs. So instead they call up their worthless psychic from before who has a look around and quickly leaves because he has old ladies to bilk out of spending cash. Truthfully, the movie is almost over and I stopped giving a shit shortly after the opening title.

You know, if the whole movie looked like this, it would be an improvement.
You know, if the whole movie looked like this, it would be an improvement.

Either way, our 2 soon to be dead people decide to spend the night in the house again. It’s probably because they’ve lived there for 19 days and now their mortgage is underwater, and moving is just the worst. So while they’re sleeping Katie is dragged out of bed by a digitally removed rope and D.S. McGee Esq. has the door slammed in his face faster than a fat Herbalife salesman. When he finally gets the door open he finds her in the hallway in a stunned state holding a crucifix, who claims that everything is going to be fine. But don’t worry found footage fans, even though his wife/girlfriend/tax write off was just pulled out of bed by a discount special effect, good old Micah kept recording. Whew. Really glad our hero is a dipshit.

The next night while Captain Dumbass is sleeping, Thing 1 wakes up and stares at him for 2 hours. Thankfully it’s fast forwarded, unlike the rest of Paranormal Activity which plays at normal speed. I like to imagine she’s looking down at Micah and trying to figure out how a nice, if haunted, girl like herself wound up living with such a rube. Nah, I’m just kidding – she’s totally possessed by a demon and has an overwhelming need to get to the credits.

So she wanders out of the room, screams and wakes up Micah. He of course runs out of the room to see if Katie is okay, and she kills him exactly like in the trailer:

 

Afterwards Katie, in full on demon Super Saiyan mode, snarls at the camera and it cuts to black. A little message pops up saying that Dipshit McGee was found dead, and Thing 1 was unaccounted for, but probably looking to Netflix and chill. At least when I saw this nonsense in theaters the audience giggled at the ending, which is the correct response since Paranormal Activity is a tour-de-farce.

So let’s break out the knives and break this thing down. Did you see the part where the characters did something? Where they were able to take stock of their situation and proceed to some kind of action? If you did, could you let me know where that was, because I sure as shit can’t find it. Let me condense the entire plot into a couple of easy steps. Feel free to play along at home:

  1. Scary thing happens at night.
  2. The next day the characters say ,”Hey, that was weird, right?”
  3. They do nothing, then go to bed.
  4. Repeat 20 times.
  5. Apparently make $200 million gods damned dollars.

What we have here is a classic situation that is all too common in horror movies where the characters do something stupid for no reason. I get that there are people that don’t always act like geniuses in certain situations, but the couple of dim bulbs that light this particular film are spectacular in how little they actually do. At least when the big titted girl in most movies runs upstairs she is doing something. But in Paranormal Activity the default action is to declare “This is fine.” But it’s not fine, because from a screenwriting perspective the characters aren’t doing anything. In other words they become reactive. They literally act as if they are in a haunted house ride and there is nothing they can do until the ride is over. It’s asinine because the audience can do something whenever they want – leave.

Also if Katie is personally haunted that would mean that everywhere she goes is haunted too. So at work – haunted copy machine. Going to the supermarket – possessed eggplant. Happy hour at Applebee’s – demonic underwear streak. But apparently the specific sweet combination of Thing 1 and oversized La Jolla real estate is just the thing a demon needs. After all, a fuckin’ demon wouldn’t be caught dead as WalMart.

The Characters

On a basic level the characters of Katie and Micah are relatable. They have a happy house and live in sunny San Diego! There’s even a pool! Truly their lives are made up entirely of magic and barely there bikini tops. But they aren’t people that I want to spend time with. As the movie goes along Micah transforms into the worst kind idiot, and Katie can’t decide whether to be scared or angry or whatever. Honestly, the longer the film goes the more I wanted the both of them to be involved in some kind of industrial accident involving an awl.

Fig. 1234567890.6: Horror movie archetypes.
Fig. 1234567890.6: Horror movie archetypes.

Horror movies will often have characters do stupid things, like crawl through a doggy door. These things happen because the screenwriter is trying to set up in the next scare or set piece. It’s lazier than washing with a wet-nap on a stick, but it’s usually fine because the world of many horror movies is exaggerated. Case in point: the only high school kids who go to giant parties out in the woods are either in American Pie or are going to get stabbed. It’s one of those ridiculous things that we take for granted, like Michael Bay movies. The thing is, having heightened realism is a bonus because it allows the audience to recognize that it’s a movie and be in on the joke.

But that only holds true for certain kinds of stories. Like the violence of something like Friday the 13th is designed to create terror and be fun in a weird way. You can yell, “Hey, I told you not to run up the stairs, and now your head fell off. Dumbass,” at the screen. We feel like we could have escaped from that situation and it makes us feel safe. On the other hand if you’re trying to do something with a more realistic bend it becomes important to have your characters act in a more realistic way. Paranormal Activity tries very hard with the handheld camera, improvised acting and found footage trope to come across as a real artifact. Then the characters go and do something spectacularly stupid and it feels jarring because it’s a motivation from a different kind of film.

The Blair Witch Project is a "found" footage movie too, and it looks like shit. So here's a BWP remake shot with puppets instead.
The Blair Witch Project is a “found” footage movie and it looks like shit. So here’s a BWP remake shot with puppets instead.

Compare that with The Blair Witch Project, where the characters continue to make decisions in an attempt to get out of their situation. What makes those characters work in that movie is that as the audience we can agree with their actions. If we were stuck in the same predicament as Heather and Co, we would probably do the same sort of things and probably get killed too. Knowing that there is little you could have done creates a sense of unease. Perhaps there wasn’t a way to get out after all and if we get lost in those woods then all we can do is get flexible and kiss our asses goodbye.

So when Micah is all like, “I gonna totally go get a Ouija board bruh, and we’re gonna hug it out,” it seems exceptionally dumb because Paranormal Activity is trying so very hard to play all of the tropes straight. It’s something that would already stick out awkwardly, but Paranormal Activity‘s design makes it more awkward – like it’s sticking out while you’re wearing khakis. Or later when clearly demon jacked Katie says after creepiness is at maximum overdrive, “It’s fine,” and they stay anyway, you just know something bad is going to happen. And with a horror movie when you can see the scares coming, all you’re really doing is hoping for rubes to die so you can get to the credits and on with your life.

night-vision-raptor

And that, is the Takedown.

Since Halloween is coming up I don’t want to leave you in a out in the cold without a scary movie to watch. So go ahead and grab Re-Animator, which is pure low budget camp and delightful. Also, there’s a drinking game. Or if you’d like your horror spiked with some sci-fi goodness, Event Horizon was great in the 90s and unlike grunge, still is today.

If you think that I don’t know what I’m talking about and want to come after me with torches like an angry mob of villagers you’ll find the best place to throw fire at me is below in the comments. If you think I’m just misunderstood and history will eventually agree with me, go ahead and muster your defense below as well.

Until next time.

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Eric Carr

Occasionally has mad notions, and more often than not runs with them. Welcome to one of those.

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