For my first viewing of ‘Paranormal Activity’, I approached it with much caution due to being very weary of the hype machine that fuelled its release. I did not want the promise of much to sucker me in while there was the huge possibility of an overrated disappointment. I wanted to try to keep an open mind and not go into it with high expectations or neither being adamant that it was not going to scare me. I did not want to do the filmmakers a disservice. In order to have a non-biases view I tried my very best to ignore all the movie’s massive publicity and pretend that what I was watching was a little known obscure feature that I had just discovered.
Young Couple Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) have just moved into their Californian suburban starter home in San Diego. Experiencing a supernatural disturbance since childhood Katie is convinced that it has followed her here. Micah mounts a video camera onto a tripod in their bedroom planning to capture any paranormal activity that may or may not occur while they sleep. Katie is adamant that she will not do anything to provoke it. She hires Dr Fredichs a psychic who upon visiting their house after an assessment of the situation concludes that a ghost is not haunting her but a demon instead which feeds off their negative energy and will follow her and taunt her everywhere she goes. He warns them not to taunt it back or try to communicate with it at all and to contact a demonologist Dr Johan Averies. Not taking Fredrichs seriously and ignoring his advice Micah decides to sort out the supposed problem himself and treats Katie’s claims and matters as a joke. Despite Katie’s wishes and Fredrichs’ warnings, he also rather foolishly goads the demon on to get it to do something and the lovers suffer the consequences.
After seeing the movie a few times I am now free to compare it to the praise heaped upon it since the its release. It has achieved a “certified fresh” rating from critics of 82% on Rotten Tomatoes and gone on to gross an estimated $141,917,283 at the worldwide box office on a budget of just $15,000 not including the marketing costs. It had its first screening at the Screamfest Film Festival back in 2007 and between then and its general release last year the film had gone through many changes. At the time of writing this review, the theatrical version is the only one I have seen. So is ‘Paranormal Activity’ according to Brad Miska of Bloody-Disgusting.com “…one of the scariest movies of all time”? No, it is not. So is it then a mediocre let down? No, it is not.
‘Paranormal Activity’ is minimalist horror at it’s, well most minimalist. Made as a faux documentary of found footage just like its most famous forerunners ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980) and ‘The Blair Witch Project’ (1999) and set entirely in the location of their house debut director Oren Peli emphasizes on the believability of the couple’s situation. He employs the Blair Witch’s use of an actual hand-held home video camera with no camera crew, no soundtrack and its technique of retroscripting - the actors not using a script and improvising to a set of guidelines of the story and scenes. The movie here does not show us anything different from any of the imitations that have followed the success of that last mentioned title. However, to the director and cast’s credit, they do pull off the naturalism of the situation and Katie and Micah provide real chemistry as a believable couple.
Unfortunately during these day scenes while Katie is a likable character drawing sympathy from us and actress Featherston does a solid job Micah is, well… a twat! While sloat is very believable in his portrayal of the obnoxious and insensitive alpha male, I did not feel one bit for him. Although his actions are feasible due to his inexperience of all things paranormal his stupidity made it very difficult for me to care for a man who did not put his girlfriend’s needs first instead of doing everything his own way. Not taking seriously the psychic’s advice of not taunting the demon and not listening to any of Katie’s concerns he brings all the danger upon her and himself. He is hugely annoying and is better off as a victim in a slasher film where we can all applaud and cheer at his demise.
The film’s main strengths lie in the actual depiction of paranormal activity that are all set at night while the two are sleeping or awake when woken by the increasing demonic danger. Peli’s minimalist approach really works well here. Without visual effects, he instead uses some smart and well-timed trickery in front of the camera and utilizes EVP for the sound of the unseen entity - all creating its realistic presence. Time-lapse photography supplements this with a time code stamp that tells us how much time has lapsed. There are some very good scenes here with increasingly mounting tension as the demon grows stronger which gets more unbearable each night over the three-week period. When we are asleep, we are at our most vulnerable and ‘Paranormal Activity’ preys on our primal fears of this helplessness. The movie is at its most effective here and is really, what it is worth watching for - creepily unnerving twitchy scenes that are unsettling but do not reach the heights of outright terror.
Overall, I liked this film but I did not love it. It is a decent little flick that is definitely worth checking out but is not worthy of the overwhelming praise that has been bestowed upon it. The night scenes here are what make the movie and view it for that uncomfortable experience of vulnerability that this minimalist horror induces. Other than that, it is nothing spectacularly special but is ultimately a good watch.
*** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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