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Paranormal Activity (A Movie Review)


Starring Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs, Amber Armstrong, Randy McDowell, Ashley Palmer and Tim Piper.

Screenplay by Oren Peli.

Directed by Oren Peli.

Distributed by DreamWorks Pictures. 99 minutes. Rated R.

Somewhere in the mania to build a gorier mousetrap, the makers of horror films forgot one very basic truism: what you don’t see is usually infinitely scarier than what you do see.

Sure, the Saw and Hostel franchises can put together an orgy of grotesqueries, however is the audience’s reaction to the intense violence really a shiver of fear or is it a shudder of revulsion? (And yes, I’m sorry; there is a huge difference there.) It is the chasm between getting someone to say “Oh!” and getting them to say “eww!” Both are strong emotional reactions – and I suppose both are cathartic in their own way – but disgusting someone is merely a cheap thrill. Scaring someone is an art form.

Paranormal Activity realizes that gaping wounds and spurting blood are not what truly sends chills down the spine. It is the door that closes for no apparent reason, footprints in a place where they shouldn’t be and loud noises in an apparently empty room.

The most complicated special effects in Paranormal Activity are probably an Ouija board spontaneously catching fire or a woman being pulled out of a bed by an unseen force. Still, in its low-tech way this is the scariest film I have seen in several years.

In fact, for long periods of time almost nothing happens. Often, we are just seeing a stationary shot of two people sleeping in bed. However, the anticipation makes the film much more disturbing than if there were dozens of SFX bogeymen wreaking havoc in the background. The audience becomes attuned to every slight movement, every shadow, and every little sound. Even when the changes aren’t obvious or even really happening, the audience is on the edge of their seats wondering: was there some movement back there? What the hell was that?

Now in fairness, part of the reasoning behind the low-key effects was simple necessity. This movie was independently filmed over a single week with a budget of about $11,000. However, director Oren Peli takes this potential handicap and uses it to his great advantage.

Much like The Blair Witch Project which became a surprise hit a decade ago (wow, was it that long ago?), Paranormal Activity claims to be a videotape supposedly found documenting the final days of people who met with mysterious supernatural ends.

In order to make this illusion complete, the film has no traditional credits, just a note at the beginning of the film thanking “the families of Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat” and one at the end explaining (as much as possible) the couple’s nefarious fate.

Just for the record, Paranormal Activity is a much better film on all levels (in terms of story, scares and technically) than the enjoyable but kind-of-overrated Blair Witch. It is also better than the other similar films that came in that movie’s wake (of which only Cloverfield gained any real traction with the public previously).

By necessity, it has a very small cast. Seven people are given acting credits online, but I swear I only remember seeing four actors in the entire running time, unless they are counting the unseen force and a little girl shown in a photograph. Essentially, only the two leads get any significant camera time. The film also has a very limited setting. It all takes place inside a lovely San Diego house, except for – as I recall – a single scene in the driveway and one in the back yard.

A writing professor once told me that the hardest stories to write are those with two people because you can’t hide. If their relationship doesn’t work, there is nowhere to hide or distract. The lead actors here, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (like in Blair Witch, their character names are the actors’ own names, to continue the cinéma vérité feel) are very natural and have a good rapport.

Katie and Micah are a young “engaged to get engaged” couple who have moved in together after three years of dating. However, what Katie never told her boyfriend was that she had periodically disturbed by a mysterious force since she was a small girl – a force that showed itself as a shadowy shape at the foot of her bed or whispered her name in the night.

Once Micah finds out about Katie’s problem, he goes all alpha male on her and decides to purchase a video camera in order to film the bedroom as they sleep. In theory, this is to find out what is happening and document it; however, like most guys with a new toy soon it is as much about playing with the camera as it is about the evil force.

We never know exactly what the force is. A psychic the couple calls in to look at the house suggests that it seems to be a demon rather than a ghost, but cannot explain exactly what it is, or why it has attached itself to Katie.

Paranormal Activity is not a perfect film. If you get technical it doesn’t so much have a plot as it has a premise – a central motif that is repeated over and over again, just slightly amping up the tension and scares each time out.

Yet, in its own modest way, Paranormal Activity offers more spine-tingling moments than any horror film in ages.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved. Posted: November 5, 2009.


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