A young couple that has recently moved in together tries to document the paranormal activity that seems to be plaguing them. At first the activity is small — objects moving over night, the occasional creaky floorboard etc. But with each new incident they feel the presence in their home growing stronger and more daring. They eventually consult a psychic who says that this entity may be demonic in nature, as opposed to being just a plain old ghost. Ultimately we discover that these events have been following the young woman, Katie (played by Katie Featherston) since she was 8, when her home was mysteriously burned to the ground.
As the movie progresses Katie’s boyfriend Micah (played by Micah Sloat) becomes intrigued by the mystery and he unflinchingly begins documenting every second he can, hoping to capture the activity on film. And he does not disappoint, by the end of the film he has an impressive array of video evidence that any of these cable ghost hunter shows would kill for. Slowly but steadily the terror ratchets up as we watch the couple sleep in their bedroom as the cameras roll in night vision mode, a shot that is the primary setting for almost all of the activity. For a while the couple is able to live their lives relatively unaffected, content to cohabitate with the unseen entity and its habit of making terrifying noises and suddenly slamming doors, until one night where the covers slowly pull back by themselves and the unseen force viciously drags a screaming Katie from her bed in the middle of the night, all in a static frame. From there the terror continues to build and the young couple quickly begin losing sleep, and struggle to keep their relationship together. Which, without giving anything away, ultimately proves futile in the last few frames of the movie.
Rarely do I get a chance to experience a film with a crowd. I go to a lot of midnight screenings and limited engagements and I do see a lot of movies with packed houses, but rarely do I experience them. Tonight, was one of those rare exceptions. I’ve been following this move for a long time, despite my best efforts the creators denied my requests for a screener and I, like all of you, was stuck twiddling my thumbs and wondering.
Well, tonight I (finally) attended the wall-to-wall premiere of newcomer Oren Peli’s directorial debut offering, Paranormal Activity. Made in 2007 this little seen but much talked about film drew rave reviews in the festival circuit in 2007 and 2008 and after seeing it tonight I can say, “for once a film that lives up to the hype.” Being in a post Blair-witch world the idea of a “found footage” film has lost some of its novelty but Peli’s take on the haunted house has clearly taken the best of the Blair-esque found footage sub-genre and ditched the over the top, and frankly less realistic elements that could bog it down.
They don’t beat you over the head with ridiculous claims about unearthing this mysterious footage; they don’t even come out and say that this is “real.” Cleverly enough the authenticity and “real-ness” of the film is implied more than anything else with a brief note superimposed on the screen in the opening that says Paramount pictures thanks the families of Micah and Katie…, as if to say that the families cooperated somehow in releasing the disturbing footage. This coupled with the fact that the two lead characters are named after their real life names and a complete lack of credits (another clever touch) all add to this implication of reality.
Overall, Paranormal Activity feels crisp and natural. Especially the chemistry between the two leads. They both inhabit their characters fully and both make the most out of the sparseness of actual storyline. In fact, “making the most out of it” should be the official slogan for this movie. Allegedly, self financed by Peli himself for only $10,000 it’s all of the original, clever little things that make this film truly unique. In some ways it’s reminiscent of Spielberg’s Jaws where you don’t get to see exactly what the threat is, and in doing so your mind takes over, filling in whatever diabolical images you wish. Truly, my heart raced every time we saw the familiar static shot of the couple sleeping because we knew that something was about to happen.
That’s the brilliance of Paranormal Activity; it’s a minimalist master class in how to create an expectation of fear and dread. Both of which were palpable throughout the entire theatre. In fact, the tension was so thick at times, that once or twice, in a desperate act at breaking the ice, an occasional audience member would try, unconvincingly to heckle the screen. If the audience wasn’t so on edge it would have been annoying but as I say, you could feel the terror and suspense building inside the theatre, waiting to blow like a powder keg. Incidentally, one aspect of the film that caught me off guard, but was very well received — was the humor. Yes, this movie was actually amusing at times. Many times, actually. There weren’t jokes per se just the natural smart-alecky remarks that any of us might quip offhand, and I must say every little chuckle was a welcome respite from the impending dread that permeated virtually every frame of the film.
In the interest of fairness there were some frustrating elements, Micah’s behavior for one. He goes from concerned boyfriend to documentary fanatic, compiling what would be an impressive array of paranormal footage that he should have been able to use to get some attention i.e. help. Instead, the one man whom they are told can help, a doctor and Demonologist, is coincidentally out of town and all Micah can do, despite Katie’s objections, is continue to film. And film he does — to the bitter and terrifying end.
Bottom line Paranormal Activity is one of the most innovative horror films of the last decade. It’s a fast, frightening film from a truly talented writer/director. And I can’t think of a better movie to see before Halloween. All terror, no tricks, what a treat! Believe the hype. Go see this movie — just not alone.
Paranormal Activity (2007)