Paranormal Activity (2007)
By: Zak Hepburn on December 4, 2009  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
Poster Art
Director: Oren Peli
Starring: Micah Sloat, Katie Featherston
Writer: Oren Peli
Country: USA
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Are you afraid of the dark? Have you ever checked for monsters underneath your bed? Maybe this scenario sounds familiar to you: You're slowly drifting off into sleep. You're eyes are gradually closing and your body is finally relaxing. Suddenly you hear a soft sound… it sounds familiar to you but you can't place where it came from or what it was exactly. It was sort of a slow creaking sound. You reassure yourself that it was nothing but all the time while you're thinking about that sound. You open your eyes. Did that door just move?? No… it's just the house settling, you tell yourself. However there's a small part of you, way down in the back of your stomach, that is paralysed with fear. You don't dare get out of bed to investigate. The possibility that there could be any number of nocturnal nasties lurking around in the empty dark rooms of your own home is almost too much to bear. Eventually calmer minds prevail and you shuffle off into the land of slumber… but what if there really was something truly evil lurking out there in the ether?

It's the primal fear of the unknown that Paranormal Activity desperately seeks to invoke in its viewing audience and it works a treat on a grass root, ghost train scare level.

The premise of the film is remarkably textbook simple: a young couple are experiencing some strange shit in their enormous house, so of course rather than head to a real estate agent they go out and buy a high end night vision camera to document the strange happenings. Genius. This simple act of sceptic surveillance documents a series of ectoplasmic events endured by the youthful householders that eventually culminates with the ultimate revelation of the surprising (or some would say not surprising at all) true ghoulish threat.

Made on a shoestring budget for approximately $15,000 by first timer Oren Peli, the film has now gone on to raise $120 million in ticket sales. That's not a bad return for a film consisting of two actors moving around a primarily single static shot of a bedroom. While this ardent simplistic approach to filmmaking may seem ingenious, it is not however the true spark of creativity lying at the core of Paranormal Activity's success. The true meaning of Christmas in this piece of phantasmagoria filmmaking lies with the unique marketing techniques utilized for the films release. While it's a popular belief that the film shares many similarities with 1999's The Blair Witch Project, a lot of these comparisons are unjust.

However the film is indeed a true successor to The Blair Witch Project when it comes to a palpable self-aggrandizing pre-buzz. Paranormal Activity successfully featured in a number of independently operated horror film festivals where it wound up being purchased by Dreamworks Studios. This initial purchase, made over three years ago, was with the intention of remaking the film into a more conventional horror film with Peli directing.

The remake languished in Hollywood development hell while the original film sat on the shelf and gathered dust until it caught the attention of a man with a beard. That man was one Señor Steven Spielberg. Thus the man with the beard spoke, the waters parted, the skies cleared and the film enjoyed a small release in number of college towns in the US. These small screenings sold out quickly and generated a considerable amount of buzz. A campaign followed where perspective viewers could go online and 'Demand' that the film be brought to their area. This proved a remarkably clever way to release the film as more than one million demands were received by the official website. The hype spread from one water cooler to the next and the film has now gone on to become the most successful horror film of the decade.

But is it actually any good and more importantly is it actually scary?

Well, sort of.

A number of the frights work well while others appear to be simple misdirection 'jump and go boo' scares. There are a number of eerie, often unsettling moments of languid middle of the night stillness that work very well in creating tension. Using their real names the two main actors of the piece, Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston play the young terrorised couple. Micah comes across as the biggest un-supportive sceptical douche on the face of the earth. Rather than seek some professional help for his girlfriend Kaite, who is clearly suffering servere mental distress, he instead installs a camera to prove his girlfriend wrong. However it is appealing to watch his brash, alpha-male chauvinist ways slowing deteriorate as the danger grows. Katie on the other hand provides an effective conduit for the audience and sells hear fear well.

Never allowing Micah and Katie, or the audience to leave the haunted household, Peli keeps the action tight, simple and confined. Paranormal Activity's greatest asset is in the small scope of its single camera frame, which keeps things nice and claustrophobic and effectively assists the films conceit of a mundane suburban existence suddenly turned upside down. However many times cheap scare tactics are dusted off, and make no mistake there are a lot of them are featured within the confides of Paranormal Activity's shaky camera work. Striking at home and introducing the main threat into the sanctuary of the bed room is where the film work and works best.

Moments of small spectral occurrences accompanied by sounds heard off screen work remarkably well, leaving the audience begging our leads not to go wandering off into the darkness searching for answers. However, it's this very same need for closure and resolve that ultimately prove to be the films undoing. As the film progresses and the proverbial curtain is slowly pulled back to revel more, the initial spark of shambolic anarchic power is diluted and dissolved until the film loses it way so badly in the third act. The new ending, which was reportedly suggested by Spielberg, comes off as a lazy paint by numbers attempt to wrap everything up and plays out as an unremarkable pay-off after the inventiveness of the proceeding 80 minutes.

So take heed, amidst the rolling waves of un-founded hyperbolic praise lies an effective little horror film. Paranormal Activity is at best a fun filled horrific cinematic amusement park attraction and should be enjoyed as a simple effective ride. Experience it late one evening in a crowded cinema with a full audience sharing all the requisite jumps and squeals that come along with the keys to a haunted house.

Now, if you'll excuse me I must go downstairs to check out that creaking door…
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