With a tense, grinding build-up that lasts the majority of the film, Paranormal Activity shows a patience that few thrillers can manage to compete with. The jump-starting fright phenomenon is slow to begin, but when the lights start to illuminate the theatre, there’s no denying that this film will keep you up at night.
The film follows young couple Katie and Micah as they attempt to capture on tape evidence of the paranormal presence that has supposedly followed Katie throughout her life. Produced for around $15,000, the entire film is shot through Micah’s portable camera he goes nowhere without.
Paranormal Activity is a combination of The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo (2001), mixing a low-budget, documentary style with the chills of ghosts, demons and poltergeist. The film’s realism is what drives it, as those who are blind going into the film question throughout: Did this actually happen?
Paranormal Activity, unlike many of its horror/thriller rivals of the day, is more concerned with quality than quantity. Katie and Micah are full, three-dimensional characters whose personalities effect the plot instead of vice versa. Who they are and how they manage as a couple effects how they deal with being terrorized by the thing they can’t explain.
Much like Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity makes the camera its own character. As its being hauled around, peaked around corners and subject to what the couple does not see while they sleep, the audience begins to feel like the kid that’s forced to go first into the haunted house. In this way, viewers actually play a role through the eye of the camera, making the film that much more real and that much more terrifying.
The quality is also in the pacing: the film stacks up the tension bit by bit, letting the audience relax on occasion between night scenes, but is relentlessly warning of the further terror to come. When the couple isn’t dealing directly with demonic possession, they are slowing piecing together information and discussing their next move, a progression that only further adds to the suspense.
The only problem with this structure is its repetitiveness. The audience is in constant wait of a climax, which bodes well for a thrilling ride, but frustrates when that climax doesn’t come when expected. This becomes a distraction late in the film as viewers lie in wait for something “big” to happen, constantly questioning when the movie will pick up.
It’s refreshing to see a horror movie return to its genre’s roots, focusing on what’s “horrific” about how humans view the world rather than what in the world scares us. How Micah sees his role as a human being in relation to what exists around him becomes the truly terrifying subject of the film. The fact that we are not always in control—of our loved ones, of ourselves and of the other beings of this world—is what scares us the most in Paranormal Activity.
Nary a cheesy or laughable moment exists throughout the couple’s experience, as queues from shows such as “Most Haunted” and “Ghost Hunters” are seemingly replicated in depicting a truly eerie demonic presence. The sounds of the house prove to be one of the scariest elements of the film—the repeated thud of footsteps on the stairwell becomes a trademark of the evil in pursuit of Katie. Even the always-present whir of the camera—what might be called the film’s only soundtrack—is enough to push viewers down into their seats.
The ending, which supposedly was altered upon Steven Spielberg’s suggestion, in my opinion, could have been done differently, but still serves justice to the overall picture. The lack of credits is another way Paranormal Activity feeds the realism, a trick first time writer-director Oren Peli was smart to use.
With a calculated, intelligent script and an uncanny knack for realism, Paranormal Activity is the best scare cinema has had to offer in a long time. The film’s unbelievably low production cost coupled with its break-neck shooting time (reportedly 7 days) proves that good movies rely on the fundamentals of film making, not the size of its star’s salary.