On DVD: Paranormal Activity


I don’t necessarily understand the phenomenon that “Paranormal Activity” became in the Fall of 2009, especially considering the success of “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield” bringing exposure to the documentary-style and low budget horror/thriller. Yet people demanded this film be shown in their cities and towns and this $15,000 movie grossed more than $100 million. We might never fully understand why, but my hunch is it’s partially because filmmaker Oren Peli is able to effectively do what bigger-budget horror filmmakers can with just a fraction of the resources.

“Paranormal Activity” is not all it’s cracked up to be, but it’s proof again that money is not what makes a good horror movie. You can sink cash into science fiction and action films and that can make them better, but fear is like humor — it’s a part of our brain function, it has no price tag. The pleasure some people get from a scary movie comes with skilled direction; money only dresses it up and allows a filmmaker to execute fear tactics in a different physical context.

The film follows a young couple that has just moved into a new home. The girl, Katie, has had experiences with some supernatural presence much of her life and it has followed them into her new home. Her boyfriend Micah has bought a camera to see if he can get down to the bottom of it and his footage is what we see. Everything takes place in their home (the home of Peli, in fact) and the paranormal events escalate as well as their relationship tension throughout the film.

This premise and screenplay is just head-strong writing. First off, its premise fits its budget. “Found footage” film-making is cheap and provides an artistic excuse to make a film that way while also appearing very real. If at any moment in the film you buy into Peli’s attempt to make it realistic, then you’ll be at least somewhat scared or fascinated with the events.

As far as being scary, Peli’s tactics are simple but executed perfectly. Everything is foot-in- the-door — worked in one scene at a time. A great horror filmmaker knows his audience’s expectations and turns them into his or her greatest tool. We learn early that this “demon” comes mostly at night and so Micah sets up his camera to record them in bed sleeping, the same shot from the same angle countless times throughout the film, the same sound effect cues to trigger our response that something is going to happen. At first just the door moves, or Katie sleepwalks, but it gets a little more intense each time and spooks you just enough before you ever realize what you’ve bought into is kind of ridiculous. It’s relentless in its ways and yet something you were rolling your eyes at five minutes ago now has your complete attention. Sometimes you’re like Micah, just itching for something to happen already and “Activity” insists on just creeping forward to the climax. It’s a plot ramp, not an arch.

In this way we’re tricked into thinking “Activity” is a good movie. In reality, though the relationship between Micah and Katie is believable, the way they handle this situation is kind of weird. First of all, I don’t know how anyone could sleep let alone 21 nights in a row knowing something was haunting them. There are many times where Katie addresses the camera and you feel that the script is really stretching to make excuses for why its on at pivotal points. And as realistic as the movie feels, there’s never a scene beyond the half-hour mark that feels strikingly truthful. It also takes us that long to get our first piece of subtext, that Micah’s a bit upset Katie never told him about her haunting experiences before they moved in.

Yet for its many flaws there’s a brilliance to the fear in us that “Paranormal Activity” preys on. First of all there’s the ageless notion of scary things happening at night when we sleep, then there’s that blurry line that we all experience in our lives like did the door just move or did the wind blow it shut? How did that end up on the floor. Peli works in these daily oddities and slowly shifts them over to completely abnormal events. It’s taking fear where we find it in our everyday lives and exaggerating. That’s the effectiveness of “Paranormal Activity.”

3/5 Stars

Paranormal Activity
Written and Directed by: Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat


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