Found footage movies have been making the rounds since Cannibal Holocaust (1980) carved out a niche in the horror genre. The marketing was so successful that the film got its director Ruggero Deodato arrested for murder until he could prove that he had not in fact killed his entire cast to make the first mass market snuff film.
Nineteen years later we were blessed with The Blair Witch Project (1999). Because of the unknown cast and relentless marking via the internet claiming that the events were real, this film reached such phenomenal levels of success that it grossed nearly $250 million, a monumental feat considering it was made for less than a million.
So I guess the big question is: does Paranormal Activity (2007) deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as these icons in the horror film genre?
I’ll be honest. Years ago, I went into this film with expectations, on some level I believe that’s unavoidable, but the experience I had watching this film didn’t compare with the other two. When The Blair Witch Project was released I was in high school and yes, I fell victim to the media campaign. This made the film truly terrifying. I didn’t see Cannibal Holocaust until ten years later but it was equally disturbing because of content.
In short, Paranormal Activity fell short for me because I’d already fallen for that trick once, and it didn’t have the same level of horrific violence that makes Cannibal Holocaust impossible to sit through without taking several breaks filled with cartoons and sunshine (at least for me). Without these elements Paranormal Activity comes off as a lukewarm film that doesn’t push boundaries. It feels ham-fisted into a studio ending that was made with multiple sequels in mind.
Once again, it’s interesting to consider the ending in terms of its predecessors. Both Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project have nothing that can be definitively classified as supernatural.
Why is this?
It is because each of these films understood one thing: people are much scarier than ghosts!
In the original pre-studio script of Paranormal Activity, Katie doesn’t turn into a demon-ghost-girl. At the end, she walks downstairs and screams. Micah follows and is murdered off screen. Katie then walks back to the bedroom covered in blood and holding a knife. She sits on the bed in a catatonic state until the police arrive the next day. She comes out of her trance and is killed by the police.
To me, this is much more satisfying because it feels like something that might happen. A demon running at the camera instantly drops the credibility ball and lets the audience leave the theater with a smile. At the end it assures us that yes, this is just a simple movie with lots of loud noises and no guts. It is for these reasons that Paranormal Activity will be relegated to late night viewings that involve channel hopping and not occupying any of my shelf space.