Director: Oren Peli
Cast: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs
MPAA Rating: (for language)
Running Time: 1:39
Release Date: 9/25/09 (limited); 10/9/09 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
Paranormal Activity is a horror movie that once again proves that the equation for genuine scares does not need to include copious amounts of blood, grisly deaths, monsters or psycho killers, an established franchise, or even a multi-million dollar budget.
This film, with a budget under $20,000, featuring four actors, shot on digital, and using minimal special effects and makeup, is genuinely unnerving. It achieves this by implementing the basic tenets of suspense: a recognizable scenario, identifiable characters, proper pacing between the lulls and moments of shock and dread, establishment of mood, atmosphere, and environment, and showing only what needs to be seen, leaving the rest a mystery.
That Paranormal Activity sets itself up as the recording of true events (without ever overtly saying it is, of course, but strongly hinting at the notion) is completely secondary to all of this. It's the same tactic used ten years ago with The Blair Witch Project, another authentically scary film that was frightening despite lacking its proposed authenticity, although this film takes it a step further by omitting any form of credits and allowing us to see more of the goings-on.
The gimmick of suggesting that the incident actually happened works, as everything from the performances to the clever special effects is plausible and incredibly believable, but it's not vital to the film's success. Perhaps, then, the biggest compliment I can pay Paranormal Activity is that it transcends its publicity trick.
The setup is simple. Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (the movie uses the real names of the two leads to heighten the "reality") have been dating for three years and moved in together. When we first meet them, Micah has bought a new camera with the intention of documenting the strange occurrences that have been happening since Katie moved in.
There have been strange noises, footsteps, whispering, and other such things, and Katie has even gone as far as to call in a psychic (Mark Fredrichs). These happenings have been going on since Katie was a child, she tells the good doctor, who tells them that most of the time such things are just normal house noises.
In this case, though, the psychic feels a presence, which means it's either human or a demon. His expertise is in human spirits, and he thinks they need to call in his colleague—the one who specializes in demons.
Micah films everything, from their normal conversation to their discussions about the haunting to the actual supernatural episodes. Katie and Micah are a credible couple. They have their cute moments; they have their fights. All of it is convincing. Featherston and Sloat establish this relationship's believability to the point that when the unbelievable starts to happen, we are as involved as possible in their plight.
Micah places the camera in the corner of the bedroom at night before they go to sleep, allowing for a wide-angle view of the entire room. They go to bed, the footage speeds up and soon slows back to normal, a low-end rumble grows on the soundtrack, and something unnatural happens.
It's a distinct pattern, but first time writer-director Oren Peli uses this design to his advantage. We begin to associate the blue-tinted night vision and the deep bass growl with something sinister, and no sooner are we accustomed to these signs than he switches up. The rumbles rolls, and nothing happens. The night vision isn't on, and something happens.
The supernatural moments are so cleverly staged, they continually demand one to wonder how Peli and his uncredited crew did it (Surely, the DVD release will not contain anything about it, and the mystery is just fine by me). There's a fantastic moment involving a Ouija board in which Micah clears off a table and lays the seemingly harmless board out. It's almost a magician moment (Look, no strings!), and as soon as Micah and Katie leave, all hell breaks loose with the spirit board.
Katie, of course, didn't want a board in the house, but Micah is convinced he can fix this problem for his girlfriend. One might wonder why these two don't leave the house and start crashing in a hotel for a while, but beyond the film's premise that the phantom will follow Katie wherever she goes, again, Featherston and Sloat make us trust their alter-egos' reasons for staying. She just wants peace in this home with her boyfriend, and he knows he can stop it for her. For each of them, there really is no other option.
The haunting continues, and we're constantly engaged with Katie and Micah and continually wondering how Feli pulled these moments off. Yet because of the former, the latter doesn't get in the way of the scares.And Paranormal Activity is undeniably scary. The sense of familiarity the actors and Peli bring to the scenario makes everything burrow into the psyche. That is the basis of horror, and this film is a prime example of doing it right.
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.