Putting the ‘Demon’ in ‘Demonstrably Underwhelming’
You know that phrase, ‘things that go bump in the night’? It doesn’t sound very scary, really. I would be more frightened of ‘things that go shriek in the night’, ‘things that go “AWOOOOOOOOOO” in the night’, or perhaps even ‘things that stalk you in the dark in order to rend your innards like spaghetti… in the night’. Less snappy, perhaps, but certainly more chilling than the latest cinema hypefest Paranormal Activity, in which the dismal attempts at scares are almost invariably of the ‘bump’ variety.
Prepare yourself for a devilishly (demonically, one might say) complex plot. There’s a young couple living in a big house. There is also a ghost, or a demon, or something, in the house. It haunts the young couple. They purchase a camera. Some ‘scary’ things happen. That’s it. Oh, I almost forgot to mention that the paranormal force haunting our two heroes switches lights on and off occasionally. I know, I know – it’s almost unimaginably terrifying. Don’t have nightmares, etc*.
The gimmick of the film is supposed to be the handheld camera, but for what seems like huge swathes of time the camera is left static on a tripod in the corner of the bedroom at night, and we are left to stare aimlessly at such bloodcurdling events as a bedsheet being lifted up by a corner. Excuse me, I have to go to sit and shiver in a corner for several hours at the mere thought. Almost every scare is presaged by a ‘bedroom corner-cam’ scene, and the film begins – unintentionally – to cause acute claustrophobia in its viewers, who sit there wishing the eye-glazingly insipid characters would just leave the house.
Even though they’re ostensibly from exactly the same genre, this film and The Blair Witch Project seem worlds apart. Blair Witch‘s great strength was the way in which the cheapness of the film was subverted through the use of imagination – what we might call the film’s ‘sameiness index’ was kept low due to frequent injections of new, if miniscule, advances in the plot.
Paranormal Activity, on the other hand, has no such plot developments whatsoever, and the writer appears not to have entertained the thought that there are only so many times that you can be terrified by watching the same door closing. The same idea (the bedroom corner-cam) is used so many times, and with so little payback, that the audience in my particular screening had to resort to making their own scares by shouting ‘BOO’ at each other. Paranormal Inactivity, more like.
If I were some kind of paranoid conspiracy theorist, I’d be tempted to suggest that all the hype blown up about this film being unbelievably scary, as well as the idea of having to ‘demand’ your local cinema shows it, were dreamed up by a brilliantly effective PR executive. Then I’d probably start raving about ‘sheeple’, so I won’t continue down that particular line of thought.
If we have reached the stage where Hollywood horror films are staid, repetitive and boring (which is definitely an argument – I asked a friend what he’s been up to the other day, and when he replied with ‘saw 2012′, my first thought was that he was referring to the latest in the series), then what we need are some genuinely inventive independent horror flicks. Paranormal Activity is not one of those, and it’s a real missed opportunity. I wanted to be truly shocked. I wanted to be unable to sleep after seeing this.
There were several sequences which were crying out for creepier hauntings – if the demon is able to control people, let’s see it really mess with them. I was about to suggest that a slow, creeping, demon-induced personality change in one of the characters would have been nice, but then I remembered neither of the characters have any personality in the first place.
In all, the experience of Paranormal Activity is rather like being mugged by a 90-year old – your assailant thinks he’s terribly frightening, but in reality he’s clichéd, hackneyed, and ultimately utterly laughable. And smells faintly of piss.
*Spoiler warning: at the very end, what exactly does the demon-possessed lead character do? Hit her face off the camera? Woah. Exceptionally terrifying, right enough…