Friday, 27 November 2009


Right then, as if I hadn’t rambled enough on this movie – let’s hit the spoilers! And let’s start by returning to have a closer look at the character dynamics on show here. To begin with it worth noting that the Katie/Micah relationship is somewhat unusual for a movie couple. Frequently film couples are presented as one of the following - the happy, loving couple, the often rowing but still passionate pair, or the duo that really can’t stand the sight of each other for a second longer. But what we have here is none of the above and we don’t often see – the couple who have been together a while and are just ticking along – they do care about each other but the relationship is now comfortable rather than brimming with affection or resentment.

And this, I’m sure many of you will agree, is a far more accurate reflection of the reality of a long term relationship than any of the three stereotypes listed previously. And the fact that we can recognise our friends, family and even own relationships in Micah and Katie does give the film a firm grounding in reality that not only draws us in to the movie’s scenario but also makes the scares far more efficacious.

However what is most interesting is the way the dynamics of the relationship lay out throughout the movie. On a second viewing, the first thing that struck me was that from the outset there are signs that their relationship is already cracking before the pressures of the haunting take their toll. In the early scenes, it’s clear that the comfort factor has reached the point where Micah really isn’t paying Katie as much attention as he should anymore. In his mind, as he’s the breadwinner of the pair he’s fulfilling his responsibilities but he’s far more interested in his gadgets and toys than providing emotional support.

Like far too many men in long term relationships, he’s taking everything for granted. And despite being the one holding done a job while Katie is at college, he has in fact regressed and the dynamic of their relationship is more like mother and child than two adults in a romantic partnership. He’s more interested in messing about and demanding attention than noticing that Katie is disturbed and freaked out by the nocturnal goings on in their home.

Now often in ghost stories, we have at least one character who is there to play the sceptic, and in Paranormal Activity Micah fulfils this role. However on watching it again, there is a good deal more going on than providing rationalist expositions for what is happening. It’s not so much a case of the Micah character having a sceptical outlook, but more that he simply isn’t taking any of it seriously.

For example, when things start to escalate and he discovers that the camera has record some of the eerie occurrences, his reaction isn’t one of anger, confusion or denial as you’d expect from some one whose beliefs about the world have been challenged by convincing evidence. Oh no, Micah’s reaction is ‘Cool! Let’s get some more!’ and general pride and smugness that he captured it on tape. And despite now being convinced that there is something doing on, he still fails grasp that the situation is deeply upsetting Katie.

After the psychic’s visit, where Katie reveals that she has encountered similar weird happenings in her past, Micah gets somewhat stroppy (one of the few times he displays any kind of emotional reaction to the situation in the first half) that he didn’t know about it. But really, if he’d had his emotional radar turned on and had been acting like a supporting adult, then perhaps the subject would have come up sooner. He’s angry that Katie has kept details of her life from him, but surely this is an indicator of a wider lack of communication in their relationship. In a healthier relationship, Katie would have confessed that she’d experienced similar phenomena if they had properly discussed it when the current outbreak of spectral malarkey began. But more damning, one has to wonder why the subject hadn’t been broached before – considering they have been together for several years, and most couples end up discussing everything under the sun in the first stages of a relationship, one would have thought that Katie’s past experiences might have come in such ‘let’s share everything’ conversations.

And as the film progresses, another thing that struck me when watching again is the fact that the escalation of the haunting is down to Micah. At first, this simply because he ignores the psychic’s advice and starts playing with the entity, and later when he is finally starting to take the situation seriously, he outright antagonises it. Furthermore it’s also clear that Katie’s gradual emotional disintegration is solely due to the stress of the nightly events but the fact that she’s coping with it on her own as Micah is far too focused on his gadgets.

The situation builds not because the demon is becoming more powerful but because their relationship is crumbling – at first Micah is too busy arsing about to act responsibly, and later because when he does start to take matters seriously he goes down the macho route, calling out the demon and refusing to seek any outside help. Despite acting like a spoilt child for most of the film, when he does take responsibility he takes the worst possible route, becoming very controlling and aggressive and by the time he realises that playing the hard man isn’t going to cut it, it’s way too late.

The movie takes great pains to build into the narrative solid reasons for why they can’t simply leave. It’s repeated emphasised that the entity plaguing them is not a ghost but some demonic spirit, and it’s not the house that haunted but Katie herself. But what became very clear to me on a second viewing is that there was a solution - Katie needed to get Micah away from her…

Now, people in films, and particularly in horror movies, are prone to doing very dumb things. But in the case of Paranormal Activity, Micah is just being the usual idiot meathead who lands all concerned in jeopardy just to progress an ill thought out plot. Yes, he is stupid but this isn’t movie stupidity, its real world masculine emotional retardation. And it’s a testament to both Peli’s script, and as whole sections were improvised, the actors’ performances that there’s enough depth in their onscreen relationship to write a length relationship counsellors report on it. Indeed if The Blair Witch Project was a horror movie with a subtext about film making itself, then Paranormal Activity conceals a study of gender roles and relationship communication breakdowns.

Right so, onto the differences between the festival cut and the theatrical version as promised. There are two main changes, and the first see the version playing in cinemas ditching a scene where Micah shows Katie footage of an exorcism going badly wrong. And while this section provides the movie with it’s one moment of gore, on the whole I felt the movie as a whole benefited from losing it. Tonally, although the scene packs a punch, tonally it doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the film and the whole conceit of finding this footage smuggled out of the Vatican online strains the credibility of the scenario slightly.

However the other major change is less welcome. In the theatrical version, we have Katie and then Micah wandering off down the darkened hallway, and culminating in Micah’s body being hurled at the camera and closing with Katie walking towards us, her face demonically contorted. However in the original ending, instead of the corpse chucking, a bloody and seemingly entranced Katie, clutching a knife, wanders back into the bedroom, sits down and begins rocking. She continues rocking throughout the day until her friend calls in finds Micah’s body and alerts the police. The cops show up, only for Katie to snap out of her trance at the worst possible moment and get accidentally shot by the officers.

Now although the theatrical end does round off the film with a big jolt, I felt it was slightly out of place. It was a typical last scare, more suited to your usual Hollywood horror and something of a contrast to the realist narrative the rest of the film had so carefully constructed.

Apart from the stylist differences between the two versions of the ending, the story’s conclusion remains the same, bar one detail. In the original, Katie is dead, but in the theatrical variant the last shot shows a title card that states that Micah was found dead but Katie has vanished. However besides being a better tonal match, the original ending also fits better with a little theory I cooked up.

Having seen Paranormal Activity several times now, I did occur to me that there could be an alternate explanation for the film’s haunting. An alternative interpretation of events could be that there is no demon, and the strange phenomena are actually a retroactive haunting. And what the hell is that I hear you cry. Well if an ordinary haunting is a recording or replay of past events leaking into the present, a retroactive haunting would be the echoes of a future event reaching back in time. Hence the figure Katie has seen standing at the end of her bed is herself, the footsteps in the hallway are those of her own future self. Or if you prefer, future Katie, the Katie who has killed Micah, is manifesting these things, and even throwing in some poltergeist style shenanigans to boot, to warn her past self.

And this does fit better with the original ending. Towards the end of the film, the occurrences one night are of the hallway light coming on by its self and we hear distorted voices. And this nicely echoes the arrival of the police in the first version of the ending. And as this ending has Katie dying, it meshes with the concept that practically Katie is haunting herself.

As stated before, the film makes clear that the phenomena will follow Katie wherever she goes, and this is an elaboration of the fact that supposed real life poltergeist activity is often centred on an individual, often a young woman. And one idea put forward by parapsychologists is that the spooky effects are not down to ghosts, demons or some other species of supernatural being but unconscious telekinesis on the part of the individual. So therefore, perhaps the events in Paranormal Activity are being generated by Katie herself. And to expand into a third interpretation, could it be that the haunting is her unconscious resentment of Micah manifesting, undermining her rational mind to the point where she can act on her subconscious impulse and the murder the insensitive slob? Certainly this third approach does fit well with the relationship subtext we have already discussed.

Now I’m not saying that either of these theories are the real story behind the haunting but it’s certainly fun to watch it with these alternative perspectives. The fact that there isn’t the usual neat unlocking of the story behind the haunting and that the movie’s events are open to such alternative interpretation is proof of the quality of the project. Whether Oren Peli can repeat this feat remains to be seen, but he if continues to develop future projects with the same level of thought, he could well become a directorial force to be reckoned with.


Anonymous said...

I recently have watched the movie a second time and I would certainly love to watch it a few times more with these perspectives.

Genius interpretations, and I am looking forward by more movies from this director too.With the same "level of thought" as you say too.

monolith941 said...

I just watched this movie two days ago, and I think I might have my own interpretation of the events and reasoning behind this movie.

Basically, I have a sneaky suspicion that the force that was tormenting Katie was actually after Micah. There are a few clues that make me feel this way.

The first clue is the destroyed picture of the couple on the beach. Why was Micah defaced, but not Katie? Micah's picture had scratches on it, plus the glass of the picture was fractured over his face as well. It almost looked like the picture glass was punched, that is; it looks like someone tried to punch Micah through the glass.

Secondly, it was Micah who was murdered by the force through Katie. Yes, Katie experienced some terrifying sequences by the force, but she was beyond her control during her sleepwalking trances. It is almost like the force tormented Katie to make Micah want to confront the force head-on.

As stated in your review of this movie, the couple obviously loved each other, but Micah was too comfortable in the relationship. Perhaps the force took advantage of Micah's machismo (and guilt) to entrap him on the night Katie killed him in her entranced state.

Perhaps my interpretation and your third option are closely related. I like this movie because it forces the audience to think.

Jim Moon said...

Ah I totally missed the significant damage to the photo! And I really like the idea that Micah is the target for the entity.

It will be very interesting to hear what Peli has to say in the commentary track on the forthcoming disc release...

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