Paranormal Activity (United States, 2009)

October 09, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Paranormal Activity Poster

The familiar looks different at night. Incandescent lights don't quite chase away the shadows with the effectiveness of the sun. The rooms and hallways of a home, so comforting at noon, can become cloaked with unease past the witching hour. This fear of the dark, one of humankind's most common phobias, lies at the heart of Paranormal Activity, as a seemingly normal house is turned into a nest of terror once the daylight has faded. Things that go bump in the night can instantly transform the most mundane location into a place of menace. This is a tale of the supernatural, but its strength is that it is rooted in the ordinary. That's what makes it creepy.

In a sense, this is The Blair Witch Project redux. It replaces the "lost in the woods" premise of the surprise 1999 hit with a "trapped in a house" concept. Both movies were made on shoestring budgets, pretend to be constructed from "lost" documentary footage, use the camera to develop a first-person narrative, and - most importantly - rely on the viewer's imagination to build upon the horror that is only hinted at on screen. The Blair Witch Project is atmosphere incarnate, and a similar claim can be made about Paranormal Activity. Both movies build momentum by playing upon the expectation that something ominous is going to happen. Since our perspective is constrained by what the camera can see, we are not privy to anything that happens beyond its field of view, although we can often hear sounds. Paranormal Activity's approach is simple but undeniably effective. Still, those who demand blood, gore, and violence from horror films may be bored by what this one offers. It's a largely cerebral experience, and it could face the kind of backlash that overwhelmed The Blair Witch Project when it exited its phenomenally successful art house run and opened wide into multiplexes. What was embraced by audiences appreciative of the unconventional was rejected by those weaned on mainstream horror. Only time will tell whether Paranormal Activity's tighter pacing and different setting will allow it to escape a similar fate.

The premise is simple: Katie (Katie Featherstone) and Micah (Micah Sloat), two twenty-somethings who have moved in together, are beginning to suffer symptoms of "a haunting" in their new San Diego house. For Katie, this is nothing new - she has experienced being watched and followed at different times during her life. For Micah, however, this is exciting stuff. He buys a video camera and sets it on a tripod near their bed to record the room while they sleep at night, and getting everything on film (actually computer) becomes paramount, trumping even the consideration of pacifying his freaked out girlfriend. The camera does its job, with the microphone capturing strange sounds and the viewfinder reflecting disquieting images, like a door opening and closing of its own volition. As Micah becomes more energized by the situation, Katie's terror escalates. She consults a psychic, who provides two startling pieces of information: the spirit haunting Katie is a demon (not a ghost) and she is the specific target of the supernatural interference - leaving the house will not lessen her plight. And every night, things get worse.

The pillars upon which Paranormal Activity are founded are verisimilitude and simplicity. The movie doesn't try to do too much. It doesn't rely on special effects. It's basically one set (a house), one camera, carefully placed lights, and two actors who are entirely convincing playing these characters. There's not a lot more to the movie than that. Many of the daytime conversations between Katie and Micah are either extemporized or made to seem that way. Director Oren Peli has crafted the movie with such deceptive simplicity that it almost seems like anyone could do it. And that, in a way, is its genius. It helps us to relate. It helps us to buy into the ghost story in a way that we might not if the production was more lavishly mounted. I don't believe in ghosts, but this is not a movie I would want to watch at home by myself past midnight. Suddenly, the natural settling noises of the house would sound anything but natural.

Is the movie scary? For a horror movie, that is often the bottom line. While it may be a stretch to call any motion picture conventionally "frightening," Paranormal Activity is suffused with a creepy, disturbing atmosphere that envelops the viewer. The "boo!" moments are effectively constructed to generate the necessary jolt without seeming unnecessarily manipulative. The ending, which was apparently selected over Peli's original version after being suggested by Steven Spielberg, is appropriate for the story.

In some ways, the marketing campaign for Paranormal Activity threatens to dwarf the movie. Paramount is building interest on the strong word-of-mouth generated by targeted screenings and by the exclusivity factor of slowly rolling it out to select theaters in specific markets. Those who feel "left out" in the early stages of the phased distribution can "demand" the movie on a website. Paramount promises that once 1,000,000 demands are recorded, the movie will go wide. (This is a bit of sham, since plans to distribute prints to multiplexes around the country were finalized weeks ago, but the website provides viewers with the illusion of participation.) The Halloween season is the perfect time of the year for a production such as this. Every October, we're all looking for a good scare. In an era when mainstream horror is often indistinguishable from self-parody, it takes something basic like this to be diabolically successful.

(Spoiler note for the trailer: If you really want to be surprised by the movie, avoid the trailer. Take my word for it.)

Paranormal Activity (United States, 2009)

Director: Oren Peli
Cast: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat
Screenplay: Oren Peli
Cinematography: Oren Peli
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:24
U.S. Release Date: 2009-10-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1