Synopsis: Oren Peli’s low-budget debut Paranormal Activity is a terrifying ménage-à-trois involving a young couple, a demonic presence, and the camera that mediates between them.
Review: The opening text of Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity informs us that Paramount would like to thank the families of Micah and Katie, as well as the San Diego Police Department, for their co-operation and support with the film. This message has two essential functions: it tells us that the film’s two principal characters are doomed from the start; and it invites us to play a game of ‘let’s pretend’ concerning the film’s authenticity, as though all the faux home video footage that follows (in fact mostly shot over one week in Peli’s own home) really was ‘found’ evidence in a bizarre domestic tragedy.
This is a trick familiar from The Blair Witch Project (1999), and as it happens Peli’s film was similarly made by unknowns on a microbudget – although whether that was $11,000, $14,000 or $15,000 will depend on who you ask. Of course, none of these estimates seems to include the cost of the entirely re-recorded soundtrack, or indeed of the different, newly shot ending (based on a suggestion from the not so unknown Steven Spielberg) that has replaced the less sensational dénouement found in the version of the film that was doing the festival rounds in 2007. Indeed, there are at least three (some say nine) different endings that have been shot for the film.
The many mythologies surrounding Paranormal Activity have been embraced, exploited and at least in part engineered by Paramount in a US campaign where clever viral marketing and staggered releases raised viewer expectations to fever pitch. The result has been a runaway hit, making $9.1 million in its first week of release despite opening in fewer than 200 cinemas, easily beating horror rival Saw VI (and everything else) to the top of the American box office in the week of Halloween, and grossing the most profit ever for a film within its budget range. The film itself has become as much of an unstoppable phenomenon as what it purports to document.
All of which is of course just hype – but as it happens, to a large degree Paranormal Activity lives up to its legend, simply because, for all its status as a derivative, subtext-free ghost train ride through all manner of cheap ‘gotcha!’ moments, it is that rare thing, a horror film that genuinely frightens and unnerves. Watch it in a theatre audience, and you will bear witness to the full symptomatology of dread and discomfort all around (and within) you – the fidgeting, the clenching of fists, the nervous laughter, the rapid intakes of breath, muted (or not so muted) cries of ‘Don’t do that!’/’Don’t go there!’, and the spectacle of an entire audience jumping in unison from their seats in fright.
So as a collective experience of horror, Paranormal Activity certainly delivers – and it will no doubt prove equally (if differently) effective in the home market, given its claustrophobic setting within an intimate domestic space. Put simply, sensitive couples who watch this film in the comfort of their own homes might well find that sense of comfort severely challenged when it is time to go to bed. So, job done, then.
Telling the story of the last recorded 21 days and nights spent by “engaged to be engaged” couple Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat), it shows (from their own recently purchased camera’s point-of-view) their increasingly frantic efforts to document, to understand, perhaps even to overcome, the strange, malevolent presence that haunts Katie at night in the house into which they have recently moved together.
She is a student looking forward to becoming a teacher, and is desperate for her frightening visitations, which began when she was eight years old, to come once and for all to an end. He is a day-trader now far more obsessed with the night, and his insistence on filming everything that happens in the house will eventually capture (and arguably create) the total collapse of their cosy domesticity.
All the supposed flaws to be found in Paranormal Activity are in fact made to serve as essential contributing factors to the film’s spooky mood. The camerawork may be amateurish (or at least appear to be amateurish), but, as in [Rec], Cloverfield and Diary Of The Dead, that is only because the film purports to be a home video made by the protagonists of their own eerie experiences, and so it becomes, in itself, a ‘reality effect’.
Peli exploits every feature of Micah’s digicam – its attached light, its monochrome-green night vision, and especially (and most inventively) its time code – to generate the maximum unease out of the often banal images that it captures. What is more, this camera becomes the medium between ourselves and the couple in their most intimate moments, as though it has summoned and invited us in. Here the viewer is positioned as domestic intruder no less than the devil at the door – and some might be left wondering (as Katie does) whether the camera itself might be the real problem in this household.
Similarly, while the structure of Paranormal Activity, with its alternating scenes of nocturnal hauntings and diurnal dialogues, might seem bludgeoningly repetitive in its creeping escalation, these carefully established patterns ensure that even the slightest variations on a familiar theme (a door moving, a light fixture swinging, a groan, a shadow, a footprint, a bang) have a disproportionately terrifying impact on the viewer.
This is like a masterclass in horror minimalism, where the tension is allowed to build – steadily and gradually – to an unbearable level, until just the merest sight of the couple asleep in their bedroom starts causing the viewer to sweat and fret in anticipation of whatever is coming next. As is often the case, here less proves to be so much more – and when we are finally, after such a carefully managed intensification of uncanny dread, brought (sort of) face-to-face with the devil inside, it is a moment which will, for all its conventionality, undeniably leave viewers very shaken.
When, early on in their camera experiments, Katie and Micah are visited by the psychic Dr Fredrichs (Mark Fredrichs), one of his first questions to them concerns the standing of their relationship. “These hauntings,” he explains, “they come off negative energy.” Sure enough, the tensions in the film’s night scenes run in parallel to the couple’s constant arguments during their waking hours. Micah is driven by a desire to provoke, film and defeat the demon in their house, while Katie just wants the camera off and the paranormal activity to stop. Eventually the animosity engendered by their bickering will tear them apart.
Viewers may sympathise more with one character or the other, but the truth is that the couple’s ongoing debate about whether to go on or stop mirrors an internal conflict in any individual watching this film. For we too are divided between wanting the ‘cool’ images on screen to keep playing (and to go further and further in their horrific revelations), while at the same time wishing to close our eyes and make all that unendurable terror go away. We are attracted to the horror as much as we are repelled by it – and somewhere between these two contradictory views, there is a devil just waiting to come out.
In a Nutshell: It’s a bit of The Exorcist, a bit of Poltergeist, a bit of The Blair Witch Project and a bit of Lost Highway – and it all adds up to a whole lot of scary.
© Anton Bitel