Comparisons to The Blair Witch Project have become remarkably overused over the years since that film’s release – the 1999 hit has become synonymous with genre stories presented as actual events captured utilising strictly commonplace equipment. Most recently, movies like Cloverfield have employed the “Blair Witchapproach”, but the comparison is never appropriate since such pictures focus too much on execution rather than spirit, and at the end of the day come across as movies rather than the real deal. The Spanish sleeper [Rec] was the last film to earn the comparison, and now along comes Paranormal Activity. Offering an intense, escalatingly terrifying ghost story, this film delivers 90 minutes of disquieting terror, and was seemingly made for the cost of the camera it was filmed on. Those who’ve been startled by strange noises in the middle of the night should find Paranormal Activity absolutely bone-chilling.
In brief, the story concerns a happy couple whose lives are ruptured by a demonic presence. Katie (Featherston) believes she is being haunted by a demon, and her boyfriend Micah (Sloat) purchases a video camera in order to capture solid evidence on film. At night while they sleep, Micah sets up the camera on a tripod, focusing on their bed as well as the open door leading to the hallway. Micah’s camera does its job, with the microphone capturing strange sounds and the viewfinder capturing unsettling images. Perhaps the demon doesn’t like the camera or perhaps it’s jealous of Katie’s relationship with Micah, but whatever the reason, the demon is becoming more enraged by the day. Night after night and day after day over 21 days, the camera records the escalating hostility.
Instead of the typical two-dimensional characters of regular slasher movies, Katie and Micah come across as realistic and sympathetic. One gets a convincing insight into their lives and psyches, to the point that they feel like real people as opposed to caricatures, and this makes the film’s proceedings all the scarier. It’s crucial to note that, from the very start, Katie is sure that she is being stalked by a demon that has followed her since childhood, and a psychic (Friedrichs) confirms her suspicions, as well as adding that it wants her. Due to this, leaving the house won’t help because the demon will follow Katie wherever she is. This clever plotting prevents viewers from asking “Why don’t you morons just move out?“. It’s interesting to note the differing perspectives of the characters – Katie is genuinely terrified, while Micah finds the situation amusing and cool. Micah repeatedly taunts the demon and is keen to buy a Ouija Board, despite warnings from the psychic and pleading from Katie.
The banality of the static camera, devoid of any aesthetic flourish, heightens the sense of reality as one’s attention is torn between watching the protagonists sleeping on the right side of the screen, and the doorway on the left side of the screen. The unknown quality of the darkness beyond the door frame in which anything could be lurking becomes a source of insufferable tension, and the terrifying disposition of these sequences is heightened by the home video quality of the footage. It’s surprising how effective a tripod can be in these Blair Witch-inspired movies, too – it provides more nervous energy and queasy-gut than all the jerky hand-held shots of the entire film. Because the camera never moves, one is encouraged to scrutinise every shadow, and when your senses are heightened to this extent, any sudden moves deliver twice the force. Admittedly, the most horrifying moments arrive during the film’s final 20 minutes; a fact that may frustrate those who expect non-stop payoffs. But these scenes are effective as an exact result of their tardiness. Peli intentionally lets an audience watch night after night as Katie and Micah retire for the evening and brace for the worst. Sometimes nothing happens. Other times, they wake up to find a set of car keys have inexplicably moved. All these mundane moments lull viewers into a false sense of security, and therefore when the shocks finally arrive…they hit hard. While it’s a stretch to call any motion picture conventionally frightening, Paranormal Activity is undeniably infused with a creepy, unsettling atmosphere which envelops a viewer.
Shot in about a week on an $11,000 budget by first-time feature writer-director Oren Peli, Paranormal Activity was originally purchased in 2007 by Paramount, who had planned to remake it as a star vehicle and dump the original on DVD. The studio, however, wisely discarded this decision since they realised that a glossy Hollywood version could only detract from this movie’s effectiveness, which is deeply grounded in reality through its gritty verité style. In a sense, Paranormal Activity is the Blair Witch Project redux. Writer-director Peli replaces the “lost in the woods” premise of the 1999 hit with a “trapped in a house” concept. Both were low-budget, and both claim to be constructed from “lost” footage. More importantly, both rely on the viewer’s imagination to build the horror. Since a viewer’s perspective is constrained by what the camera can capture, one can only hear sounds of what happens beyond its field of view. The film is only as scary as a viewer makes it. Unfortunately, Paranormal Activity has been forced to endure the type of backlash which overwhelmed The Blair Witch Project following its release. LikeBlair Witch, Paranormal Activity is a thoroughly “love it or hate it” affair – you either accept the concept, or the style annoys you. Either way, one would have to be seriously deluded to deny the effectiveness of the filmmaking on offer.
Yet, Paranormal Activity sells itself short in a number of ways. First of all, unnecessary jump cuts pervade the motion picture, as if conversations are altered, which immediately spoils the “actual events” set up. (For instance, there are cuts between questions and their respective answers.) For all its authentic edge, the characters remain fixed onto the rails of narrative convention too, and the ending of the theatrical version feels like just that – theatrical. It’s suspiciously neat. Steven Spielberg suggested this particular ending, but it seems the man dropped the ball here. The ending of the original 2007 cut isfar better. Furthermore, there are a few questions that come to mind – if Micah is so tech-savvy, for example, why doesn’t he post the videos on the web so someone could potentially see what’s happening and offer valuable advice?
Stephen King once wrote that creating horror is similar to martial arts: finding vulnerable points and pressing. This is the perfect description of Paranormal Activity. It’s probably best watched alone in the middle of the night for maximum effect. If you cut out all distractions, and glue your eyes and ears to the screen…you’ll be scared silly.