Director : Oren Peli
Screenplay : Oren Peli
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007 / 2009
Stars : Katie Featherston (Katie), Micah Sloat (Micah), Mark Fredrichs (The Psychic), Amber Armstrong, Randy McDowell, Ashley Palmer, Tim Piper
Riding a wave of buzz generated by celebrity Twitters, great word-of-mouth, and a unique marketing strategy in which Paramount released the film in only a few venues and then set up a web site allowing for viewers to “demand” that it be given a wide release, Paranormal Activity lives up to its reputation as one of the scariest movies in years, which it accomplishes not with big shocks or grabby special effects, but via a slowly escalating sense of dread that preys on our most basic fears. Stephen King once wrote that making horror is a lot like martial arts: finding vulnerable points and pressing, which is a perfect description of what this ultra-low-budget but extraordinarily clever film about a demonic haunting does. Those who have ever felt the hairs on the back of their neck raise up for no particular reason, or have heard a strange noise in the middle of the night that may or may not have been the ice maker, or have felt somehow exposed if their foot is sticking out from under the sheet at night will find Paranormal Activity absolutely bone-chilling.
Shot over a week for $11,000 by first-time feature writer/director Oren Peli, Paranormal Activity was originally purchased by Paramount in 2007 with the idea that they would remake it as a glossy star vehicle and dump the original on DVD, a decision that was wisely discarded since Hollywood actors could only detract from the film’s effectiveness, which is deeply rooted in a perception of reality that quickly makes you forget you’re watching a movie. Like The Blair Witch Project (1999), Cloverfield (2007), and Quarantine (2008), the film’s visual and narrative conceit is that we are watching purportedly found footage shot by those we see on-screen, which is emphasized here via a lack of opening credits or even a studio logo and a simple disclaimer thanking the families of Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat and the San Diego Police Department.
Katie and Micah are a young couple (she’s a grad student and he’s a day trader) who have had some strange experiences since moving into a two-story San Diego townhouse together. Micah has decided to deal with the problem by buying a videocamera and recording software for his computer in the hopes of capturing whatever activity (paranormal or otherwise) is happening in their house. Thus, we get shaky home-movie-quality footage of the couple at home, which serves the dual function of both sketching in background information about the potential haunting while also developing Katie and Micah as characters (with the exception of the film’s opening shot, which ventures as far as the driveway, the entire film takes place within the confines of the home). Katie clearly believes that something supernatural is happening, while Micah remains guardedly skeptical; she asks a psychic (Mark Fredrichs) to come to the house and give his opinion, which turns out to be anything but reassuring (let’s just say that he feels out of his league and suggests that they contact a demonologist).
The film’s escalating sense of dread and suspense is ingeniously structured around grainy, bluish-gray footage recorded from a tripod in Katie and Micah’s bedroom at night while they are sleeping. The banality of the fixed camera, devoid of any sense of aesthetic flourish or artistic pretense, heightens the sense of reality as our attention is torn between watching Katie and Micah sleep on the right-hand side of the screen and the doorway on the left-hand, through which we can barely make out the dim outlines of the hall and the top of the stairway. The unknown quality of the darkness just beyond the door frame--in which anything could be lurking--quickly becomes a source of almost unbearable tension, and the fact that it is shot with a wide-angle lens that ever so slightly distorts the image only increases the unsettling quality of these sequences. A display at the bottom right-hand corner of the screen informs us of the time, and we watch with baited breath for something to happen. At times the footage speeds up, creating an eerie sense of uncanny movement that we recognize is the result of fast-forwarding, but still seems unduly unnatural, while at other times it plays in agonizing real time. It is so simple, yet I cannot recall any image from another horror film that so succinctly and effectively conveys the sense of impending victimhood and aligns us with it. We might as well be in the bed with them.
Watching Katie and Micha’s slumbering forms on one side of the screen while looking back to the gaping doorway is a stark remind of how vulnerable we all are while sleeping, and the fact that this shot is repeated over and over again throughout the film with increasingly frightening results is its true genius. In fact, the film only gives in to unnecessary flourish in its final shot, which is the one moment in the entire movie where I was suddenly aware that I was actually watching a movie. Without giving too much away, let me say that it could have ended with just a bone-chilling smile, but instead it goes into the maw, which is simply too reminiscent of other J-horror-inspired shockers. Even with this modest stumble in the final frames, Paranormal Activity is a genuinely chilling experience into which it is all too easy to project our own fears and insecurities--always the hallmark of great horror.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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