Conventional wisdom dictates that timing is everything, and certainly such is the case for Paranormal Activity. Arriving smack-dab in the midst of the bizarre ghost-hunting craze, this bargain budget supernatural startler has managed, through ultra-enthusiastic word of mouth and clever marketing, to become what the illustrious star of stage and screen LL Cool J once referred to as “something like a phenomenon”. Yet, although the film undeniably meets the necessary scare quotient, there’s a gimmickry artifice about the well-intentioned venture that sometimes cheapens what is intended as an experience in raw, intimate terror.
Shot in Blair Witch Project-style handheld-o-vision, Paranormal Activity is also, like that film, sold on being authentic footage of an ill-fated encounter with otherworldly forces. However, as opposed to twigs and people standing in corners, this film brings an invisible demonic force to the party, which violently disrupts the lives of a semi-flaky “engaged-to-be-engaged” couple occupying a palatial suburban San Francisco residence. Predictably, this unwelcome intruder draws differing reactions from its two hosts, with the tormented Katie (Katie Featherston) forced to confront her shadowy past while cynical day-trader Micah (Micah Sloat) keenly attempts to capture the spooky goings-ons on video.
As the two lovers document the mundanity of their daily lives, and divulge the reasoning behind their surveillance-heavy experiment, early attempts at grabbing uncanny episodes on tape prove fruitless, with an icemaker acting as the initial main source of eerie clatter. Still, concerns are raised considerably upon the discovery of night-time footage of a self-swinging door. Calling in a psychic (the disarmingly paternal Mark Fredrichs), the sleep-deprived duo is informed that an angry demon is at work, one which will only be satisfied by...
...and that’s where I’ll stop, as giving away anything more would risk devaluing the film of its seat-jumping shock tactics. For, like Blair Witch, there is little reason to watch Paranormal Activity once its ghoulish hand has been revealed. The film, unfortunately, clings to its attention-grabbing stunts like a life preserver, forsaking any sense of narrative drive or logic (Why don’t Micah and Katie ever turn on a light or try leaving the house early on? And how do they have the presence of mind to always grab the camera, much less frame their shots, when things get real bloodcurdling?) in favour of episodic chills. Writer/director Oren Peli knows how to keep the audience clutching uncomfortably at the armrest, but seems unsure of how to tell a story.
This handicap is most evident in the daytime scenes, depicted in random cuts of film which feel slightly too arbitrary to be believable – It’s doubtful that an eager-beaver shooter like Micah would keep turning the camera off mid-conversation just to restart it from a different angle – and occasionally kind of dull. A common stumbling block in quasi-documentary horror flicks is that, while true-life conversations are tedious when viewed on film, falsified attempts at true-life conversations are even worse. Look no further for this rule in action than in the awkward psychic scene in which clumsy expository dialogue brings the film’s realistic flow to an awkward standstill.
Leads Featherston and Sloat do bring a nice naturalistic energy to their work though, helping to smooth out Peli’s occasional directorial bumps and blunders. We more or less believe them as a couple, and as their relationship devolves into hysterical bickering we’re in there with them. It can’t be over-stated how refreshing it is to see two genuinely normal-looking individuals on screen, with Sloat’s clean-cut, yet slightly goofy, demeanour nicely complementing the smart-and-sexy girl-next-door appeal of Featherston who, as the film makes a somewhat cheeky effort to show, fills out her endless supply of tank-tops and boxers admirably. These two novices sell each and every on-screen fright with emotional honesty and relatable panic, and Paranormal Activity benefits hugely from it.
Make no mistake, you will undergo moments of intense dread during this film, with Peli dragging each and every moment of teeth-grinding suspense to the max. Rather than rely on gore or CG, the director successfully takes you back to those dark childhood nights where just a shadow or creak would send your heart rocketing into your throat. Applying a suffocating ambient soundtrack of boiler room sounds, and employing the most basic practical effects, the fiendish nocturnal visitor’s presence looms forbiddingly over ever dimly-lit scene. Even the most cynical of movie-goers will likely find themselves having to remember to breathe in the nerve-obliterating latter sections.
The value of Paranormal Activity depends almost solely on the conditions you experience it in, with the preference being either a theatre or suitably darkened TV room. It isn’t a great film by any stretch, or even a consistently good one, but it’s an effective exercise in audience manipulation that plays like an amusement park ride, with all the requisite thrills, spills and surprises you desire. Just try not to be the last person in line.
3 out of 5
*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Oct 26th, 2009.