Paranormal Activity cannot help but be compared to The Blair Witch Project. It was made on whatever is less than a shoestring (a sockthread?) for just $11,000, by Oren Peli, a video game designer with no previous film experience of any kind. Cast a handful of unknowns, make them film themselves with a single camera, pretend that the film is actual found footage, do the production work yourself on your computer, and all of a sudden you’ve done made yourself a real live movie. Most of the time this process results in something that looks like the amateur film project it really is, but every once and a while it just plain works. When the director holds up his end of the proceedings and manages to luck out with unknown actors who can nevertheless carry the film, the end result is a film like Paranormal Activity.
The film begins with brief text explaining that the following footage was recovered by the San Diego Police Department, and then introduces us immediately to the two leads. Micah (played by Micah Sloat) meets Katie (Katie Featherston) at the door of their house, filming her with the video camera he just purchased in order to document the “paranormal activity” that they’ve been seeing. The film quickly establishes that this sort of thing has been following Katie for years, since she was a little girl, terrified of the dark figure in her room. This simple observation lets the film escape from that easy loophole of haunted house flicks: leaving simply won’t do any good, the problem is Katie, not the house.
The film progresses from there, with a steadily mounting progression of paranormal activity, punctuated by gaps in the timestamping of the video footage. Something horrific might happen, followed by a night of minor disturbances, and then three days of nothing before something terrible happens again. It gets worse overall, but the unpredictability from moment to moment keeps the audience tense. Horror films typically are built on a sequence of horror, relief, worse horror, relief, etc. After each instance of horror the tension evaporates and the audience relaxes until it recognizes the build up to worse horror. Paranormal Activity doesn’t play by that rule book, the uncertainty never really allowing the tension to relax through the entire film.
The two lead actors simply carry the film. If they weren’t top notch, all the tension and believability would drain immediately out of this film. They use their real first names, presumably in order to make the interactions feel more natural. They have an easy reparte, that comfortable humor and teasing of a real couple. From start to finish, there is an amazing amount of humor and nuance to the characters, even as the tension weighing upon them becomes suffocating. Katie and Micah fight more as the film goes on, but they argue the way a real couple does, the muttering under the breath, the irrational nit picking, the half joking barbs. They’re not too eloquent and smooth around the edges to be real people.
Katie magnificently conveys a confident young woman who gradually slips further and further from sanity. She exudes a quiet dry wit, reminiscent of Pam from “The Office” but with more curves. As the film progresses, she swings wildly in her desperation, from sobbing to screaming to angry denial to passive aggressive sniping at Micah. Micah plays that guy who pisses you off in horror movies, the one who pushes all the wrong buttons and looks in all the rooms that he shouldn’t. But simultaneously, his response is so natural: it is his house, he will fix the problem, he will protect his girlfriend. He goads the invader, stands up to it, taunts it, dares it to show itself. It’s a clever underlying point that Micah’s defiance is the leverage that opens the door wider bit by bit.
The faux documentary style of it is a little rough now and then, but evens out since most of the footage is taken when they set up the camera for the night looking out over their bed and down the hall, passively taking in the events. Even when they grab the camera to film throughout the house, it is rational from the point of view of Micah: no one will believe this unless it’s on film. Paradoxically, the more insane the activity becomes, the more important it is for it to be captured, for their own peace of mind. The continuous filming becomes a point of sanity for the characters. Several times, we watch them play back the previous night’s footage, watching over and over trying to figure out what’s happening.
And what’s actually happening is terrifically dark. I’ll not spoil the film here, but suffice to say that the activity is not just increasingly obnoxious footsteps and lights turning on and off. There is serious psychological horror here, events that while not visually spectacular are emotional gut punches within the carefully constructed context of the characters.
But let’s be frank, the same people who hated Blair Witch will hate this film. The crowd I saw it with was overwhelmingly positive when the lights finally came back up, but there were a few of those guys. “That was it? What was so scary about that? A bunch of noises? Come on.” I think that people who don’t get why films like this are terrifying are having a fundamental disconnect. Mediocre films rely on you thinking that what is happening on the screen is frightening in and of itself, that’s why they depend on those jump cuts where the camera pans and then jerks back because something is suddenly there that wasn’t before, never mind that if the character was real, he or she would have seen it on the first camera pass. Good horror relies on you empathizing with the characters, in other words, the events depicted would be terrifying if they happened to you.
The noise from the other room, the door you swore you closed, that creepy feeling of being watched, suddenly waking up in the middle of the night certain someone was standing next to the bed. Those things scare the living shit out of each of us at some point. Sure, on the screen there isn’t much inherently frightening about the sound of footsteps, an odd gust of air and a moving sheet, but when you’re laying in bed tonight, half asleep with the lights off, imagine hearing the steps coming towards you, imagine that hot breath exhaling on your neck and the sheets sliding slowly off your legs. And when you yelp and lunge for the light and check under the bed and in the closet, whisper to yourself that a few bumps in the night aren’t that scary.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com.