Paranormal Activity follows the story of Micah and Katie as they try to film some of the strange goings-on in their house, which they suspect is being haunted (note: the two characters are played by Micah Sloat and Katie Fetherston respectively — see what they’ve done there?) As a self-confessed cynic regarding the supernatural or paranormal, I expected to be disappointed by a film which concerns itself with precisely my object of contempt. On the contrary, I left the theatre absolutely terrified.
Paranormal Activity doesn’t cover a lot of ground, and isn’t overly complicated, but what it does try and execute is done so with style, mainly down to the creativity of writer/director Oren Peli. Good suspense-based thrillers turn the ordinary into the fascinating and terrifying, and this occurs in abundance in the film. Take for example, the simple act of a door opening and closing. Through drawn out, seemingly monotonous mid-shots of a normal bedroom, Peli tests your patience, only to provide the payoff with the shot of a moving door, which confirms the demonic presence in the house. It’s hard to express this in words, because the tension comes precisely from the visual image, bolstered by the use of handycam footage throughout (or as Micah somewhat paradoxically calls it, a “giant-assed camera”) which in true Blair Witch fashion, is deployed to its full realist capacity.
Have no fear; a Blair Witch rip-off this is not. I would argue that Paranormal Activity is a far superior film. Again, simple devices like leaving the time code of the camera onscreen add to the illusion of reality, managing to suck in even the most stoic of cynics like me. Minimal camera movement throughout allows your eyes to wander and choose which part of the frame to focus on. On many occasions, the result of this was my attention being centred on the “wrong” part of the frame (the section where the “action” was not occurring), only for me to be abruptly terrified when I was alerted to the real focal point (again signalled through a visual change).
The most simplistic, and yet the most effective, of such devices deployed by Peli is the lack of credits book-ending the film. Consequently, the movie ends abruptly in comparison to the standard, clearly signalled ending we are accustomed to. This in turn created an awkward and tense silence in the theatre which remained until everyone reluctantly left the auditorium. To say we were all shaken to the core would be an understatement.
It would be unjust not to mention the brilliance of both Micah and Katie whose subtle performances had a huge role in maintaining my suspension of disbelief. Micah’s character arc is particularly relevant, as his initial cynicism, which slowly progresses into fully absorbed terror, mirrored my own experience of viewing the film. His role in the ending literally moved me from my seat, and is worth the price of admission alone.
As you can probably tell, it is difficult to review the film without ruining the plot. Like all great movies, the medium is used to its fullest potential here, relying heavily on visuals and movement within the frame to create suspense, deploying minimal dialogue at the emotional peaks of the picture. You really need to see the movie to understand my enthusiasm. If, like me, you’ve been longing for a genuinely scary movie, this is the best option around at the moment.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that “If it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly good idea of what’s going on”. Paranormal Activity is a prime example of this, and it brings a well overdue slice of Hitchcockian suspense to 2009.