Paranormal Activity set a standard for me, as being the most bored I have ever been while watching a movie. I spent the last three quarters or so going through a pattern of ambivalence-anticipation-disappointment-repeat. At first, the “non-scary” scenes were enjoyable because of their realistic approach. Micah and Katie feel like real, clever-enough-to-amuse-each-other couple and we look forward to seeing how real people would react to being dealt such a raw deal. It was their “fairlynormal activity” that had me curious and excited to see what happens.
Then, supernatural stuff starts to go down, all of which is captured by Micah and Katie’s handicam. This isn’t a new approach (see The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Rec/Quarantine) but Paranormal Activity tries to do more with less. Rather than frantic camerawork, this film uses familiar, static shots (mostly of Micah and Katie’s bedroom), leaving the viewer to play a kind of suspenseful “Where’s Waldo,” looking for the creepy bits. At first, this comes in the form of a tapping sounds, but by the end (and the 12th-or-so bedtime scene), the supernatural stuff becomes more intense.
The daytime scenes were made up of the couple searching for help, amongst the living. In these parts, Katie becomes an uber-bitch when Micah refuses to take the situation seriously. He thinks it’s cool to be haunted, and wants to catch the whole experience on camera (hence our having the “footage” of the events).
These two kinds of scenes alternate, with the daytime stuff feeling more like stop-gap filler, rather than providing any real information or moving the narrative forward. There are a few scenes that almost feel worth it (like when Micah and Katie talk about how their lives are being ruined by their inability to sleep), although this scene is also the worst scripted in the movie. By this point, it starts to feel like the actors are acting, rather than being people. And, at the end of the day, (pun intended) all that we are really there for is the bed stuff… I mean the ghosty bed stuff.
Even there, however, the escalation takes forever to get anywhere. Tapping leads to door movement, which leads to noises downstairs, etc. With all of the daytime filler, these scenes rarely feel worth the wait. The slow build makes narrative sense, allowing the characters to slowly decay psychologically, but on film, the suspense is worn out early. We know things are going to get worse, so a swinging door doesn’t seem quite so bad.
The version I saw was also not the theatrical version. There was one scene that I was very much looking forward to, that I had seen in previews, and it’s not even in it. Turns out, that scene (involving someone getting thrown around) was added later, when the film got a wide release. The one that I saw was a big cop-out and disappointment, since everything that we would want to see happens offscreen. At this point, we’ve been watching for over an hour, waiting for something really terrifying and intense, only to have it happen on a different level of the house from the camera.
Watching the movie, you can see and appreciate what the director was trying to do. Whether or not it works is up for debate.