Paranormal Activity has become the most talked-about horror film in years, certainly the most touted since The Blair Witch Project defied the odds and become one of the most profitable movies ever. Writer/director Oren Peli’s debut feature is the latest in a string of pseudo gonzo-style ‘found’ footage horror, purporting to be the genuine article and working hard to maintain that illusion throughout. Largely discarding traditional opening/closing credits, it even opens with a memorandum to the surviving family members of the two onscreen ‘victims’ for added effect.
Kate (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) seem like any other couple. She’s a student and he’s a day trader, and both seem like the textbook definition of young love. Only Kate has a secret; she’s been receiving nightly visits from an invisible entity since childhood, causing her untold levels of stress and anxiety. While most boyfriends would run in terror at the prospect of a haunted girlfriend, Micah proves himself an excellent partner for his future fiancé. While a prognosis psychic Dr. Fredrichs (Mark Fredrichs, in keeping with the real-name scheme) fails to convince him that Kate’s supernatural visitor(s) may be the real deal, the nocturnal footage and audible bits gleamed from his stationary digital camera prove far more effective.
Much of the film’s running time is set establishing Kate and Micah as real people, simply going about their day-to-day business much like anyone else. But we’re not here to see what’s essentially a collection of YouTube clips sewn together, we’re here for some thrills and chills. The various ‘ghost’ effects that appear on camera are handled well and look authentic, timed for maximum scariness and audience screaming. This works largely because low-budget filmmaking compliments the horror genre so well, and director Peli wrings more natural scares from a door slamming and swinging chandelier than any big-budget monster I’ve ever seen. One need only look at the endless train of ‘torture porn’ sequels that pop up annually in theaters, each looking to out-gross the other with disemboweled innards and rivers of blood splattered strategically across the screen.
This film has none of those things, comfortably aware that sometimes the scariest things are what you don’t see.
Where things begin to fall apart slightly is when the two ultimately become aware that there might be something behind those bumps in the night, which forces the film into generic and predictable modes. The couple’s various conversations with friends sound phony and almost break the mood. Micah too often resorts to acting extremely stupid, making the same rookie mistakes that most guys in similar horror-movie fashion make for whatever reasons. Watch him bring the Ouija board into the mix, despite being warned against it. Watching him strut about, egging the supernatural being on in some bizarre show of machismo feels tacky, just as his insistence that everything be documented on film. You get the feeling that he’s almost enjoying whatever torment Katie’s going through, even grateful for the chance to make America’s Spookiest Home Video.
As the film has been floating around in some form or another for nearly two years there have been many reviews and opinions about what to think of this. Some have called it overrated and overhyped, not at all deserving of its cult-like status that so many seem to be heaping upon it. I couldn’t disagree more.
There were groups (plural) of mostly kids and teenagers outside the theater who thought this was real, feverishly calling and texting their friends to go see it for themselves. Of course, a great deal of this ‘spontaneous’ social-networking was heavily encouraged by the distributor (“Demand It!”) but using online groups and services is a justifiable advertising effort, and a killer one if the movie is any good. Considering the film’s zero-budget roots and lack of recognizable stars that it had a theatrical release at all is something of a miracle, and would suggest critics not let others dictate their levels of enthusiasm and expectations in the future. I’m just saying.
Paranormal Activity is a smart and smartly-directed piece of supernatural horror that really works, and for some viewers will probably be the scariest film they’ve ever seen. With a budget that’s less than most films’ catering services director Oren Peli’s directorial debut manages to make closing doors and the sound of footsteps a terrifying experience – and all without excessive blood and stupid teenagers doing stupid things. Like fellow low-budget superstar The Blair Witch Project, it may not hold up over extended viewings, but that first ride is totally worth it.
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