In the days of overexposed, computer heavy FX extravaganzas, horror films that go for a more subtle build of terror are usually dismissed as cheap throwaways that just don’t have the budget to compete with the big studio thrill rides. It’s no secret that the “less is more” philosophy is the independent filmmaker’s best friend, but occasionally there comes along a movie that embraces its sense of mystery and uses a building sense of menace to its advantage.
Oren Peli’s PARANORMAL ACTIVITY may literally be the best haunting movie as well as one of the greatest examples of using a simple yet effective idea to its fullest potential. The hand-held video camera opus follows couple Micah and Katie as they come to terms with and document the almost nightly visitations from a ghostly entity that proves to be more demonic in nature than mischievous. Presented as “found” police footage devoid of anything resembling production credits, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY strives to out shine “The Blair Witch Project” in terms of its offered reality.
As the footage starts we are introduced to student Katie, a young lady who reveals that she has been plagued by hauntings throughout the course of her life, once resulting in the destruction of her family home due to a mysterious fire. Katie comes across as a real, likeable person who treats the activity with respect, questioning frustration and a healthy dose of fear. On the flip side of the coin is her day trader boyfriend Micah, a swaggering, cocky guy who buys the very expensive video camera recording the footage the viewer is now watching in a hope to capture the “cool” ghost activity that he treats as both an annoyance and joke rather than a real threat.
A short yet effective amount of time is spent in the beginning of the film establishing Micah and Katie as very real people. I can’t stress enough that most of the effectiveness of seeing the events that befall these two people come about from such strong characterization by the two leads. Quite possibly just playing facets of themselves, Micah and Katie give us a natural back story in just a few lines and scenes of interaction that ring more true than the most convoluted “info dump” intricate writing that most screenwriters muddle up for their characters. If the presence of the lead characters weren’t so strong, then the rest of the film would just be an empty series of events. As it now stands, the complete unease from the moment PARANORMAL ACTIVITY starts is almost tangible before even the first occurrence of activity even happens.
The tension is real because you can feel the electricity of something waiting to happen. When the spiritual activity starts it is a slow build with the night time activity in almost complete companionship with the character’s daytime reactions. As the activity increases and is documented on camera, the characters’ mood and demeanor change. Katie becomes more frightened and Micah becomes more mystified as well as challenging to the entity. In response, the visitations step up in frequency and intensity with poor Katie becoming the perpetual victim. When a paranormal investigator is called by Katie and proclaims the entity to be demonic in nature, the viewer can actually feel the tension of the approaching night.
A major problem with the recent run of “Home Video Horrors” such as “Cloverfield,” “Diary of the Dead,” and [REC] is that while we can suspend disbelief at the situations we are watching, there needs to be a intelligent reason why the protagonists keep their cameras running while “all Hell cuts loose”around them otherwise the fact that we are watching a gimmicky movie is all too apparent. Usually given a throwaway line along the lines of, “People need to see this” or “We have to let the world know what’s going on” only [REC] and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY actually bother to realistically tie the camera into the experiences: [REC] has the footage taken by a news team which, as we’ve all seen on nightly news reports, news crews will leave their cameras recording during all sorts of dangerous situations no matter how obnoxious their presence may be.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY has the camera play the part of a voyeur to Micah’s ego. He constantly disregards Katie’s wishes and pleads to let the situation rest almost as if he is playing up to the perceived audience that the camera represents. When Micah brings a Ouija board into the house despite warnings from the investigator and Katie not to, the danger becomes real for everyone else involved except Micah who uses the camera as a symbolic shield against the intruding aggressor.
The details of the nighttime attacks are deliberately being kept vague here as things happen with an escalating ferocity that is quite chilling. The movie is genuinely frightening at times and there were instances that something occurred at night where I felt that there could be nothing to top what I just saw…until the next night rolled around. There was even an instance where I commented that it would be terrifying if a certain something happened, only to have that very same something actually happen right after. It is a rare film that can make you vocalize a fear and then deliver that very exact moment later. It is a very disorienting feeling to experience, yet adds to the amazing overall experience of the film.
When the footage starts, the daytime scenes almost serve as exposition to the heart of the subject- the nocturnal incidents. As the film progresses, these seemingly innocent daytime sojourns subtly change from a break from the night sieges to a safe haven from the atrocities visited upon our characters. The change in dynamic is subtle but when you realize it happens the change is all too evident. We see Katie and Micah who initially were a loving and playful couple change into terrified, sleep-deprived shells who suffer in their business and educational endeavors, further believably painting a portrait of people helplessly under siege in their own homes.
Further into the film, the demonic attacks show a complete tactical logic. The demon, apparently laying dormant for an undisclosed period in Katie’s life, shows signs of obsession with Katie as well as becoming bolder and bolder with almost every visit. The entity, seemingly getting closer and closer to Katie not just physically but mentally and psychologically, becomes more of a threat to Micah not just physically but emotionally. There is a very obvious moment in the latter half of the film where Micah not only chastises Katie for bringing this into “his” home, but openly challenges the entity as he stakes a claim to his own mastery of the house. As the creature begins to take possession of Katie, Micah at times becomes increasingly emasculated in his own home by something that pays no attention to his own false bravado. The early scene where Katie sleep walks out of the room can be seen as a dry run by the entity to see just how far it can exert its control over Katie.
Many films both past and present have bragged that what you do not see in their film is much more terrifying than what you do see, the idea being that when given the right stimuli your mind will “fill in the blanks” and create the ultimate terror. Many films boast this claim but, unfortunately, most use this as an all too apparent crutch to try and hide their talent and budgetary shortcomings. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, like Jacques Tourneur’s “Cat People” and “The Uninvited,” is a masterful exercise in mood and sound effects with certain stylish visuals that carry the story. Never before has audio cues and suggestion been used so effectively.
Many moments in this movie will stay with you for a long time, and will probably creep into your mind at the most opportune moments, like while lying in bed late at night. Scheduled to ultimately get a big studio remake once again under Peli’s direction, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY deserves to been seen by anyone who craves a truly frightening experience. Granted, the film is most effective as a shocking frightfest the first time around but I guarantee there are still plenty of nuances that repeat viewers will find in subsequent viewings. I cannot recommend this movie enough and it is refreshing to see (when our supposed unfaultable genre directors are just struggling to make a simply coherent movie) a new director, who surprisingly is not hailed as the next great savior of horror, make one of the most effective movies I have ever seen.