2009 | Director and Writer: Oren Peli
It can be said that apart from stylishness, acting, plotting, dialogue, and other essentially decorative trappings of story, any genre film’s level of success comes down to basic effectiveness. Was the comedy funny? Was the drama moving? If that kind of performance truly is the measure of filmic excellence, then “Paranormal Activity” might be one of the best horror films of all time, obvious flaws notwithstanding. And here’s how it was done: one camera, four actors, and a bunch of on-set sound effects. Sounds scary, right?
When day-trader Micah (Micah Sloat) brings home a digital video camera to document (“for posterity,” he says seriously) his student girlfriend Katie’s (played by Katie Featherston) continued haunting by unseen and mostly irritating forces, she responds with playful annoyance. After all, the titular activity has been pervasive since her childhood home mysteriously burned down 15 years ago, but it has never been more than a creepy nuisance, either.
That changes when Micah begins filming. His static nighttime setup shows immediate results in odd noises, slightly-moved doors and the like, but Katie grows unhinged–as much at Micah’s gung-ho attitude as anything–as the taping continues, leading to the hiring of psychic Dr. Fredrichs, who calmly tells the couple that they are not dealing with a human ghost, but a demon. From there the couple’s life quickly unravels–Micah’s machismo and Katie’s burgeoning terror become their defining characteristics as each night’s taping shows more and more frightening occurrences, provoked, seemingly, by Micah’s prideful missteps. The expert warns them that moving won’t change anything, as Katie is the one being haunted, and not the house (filmed at writer-director Oren Peli’s actual San Diego home).
As “The Blair Witch Project” demonstrated before, a big budget isn’t necessary to tap primal human fear; but “Paranormal” takes its $15,000 allocation and runs with it, surpassing its predecessor by far in the scares category, thanks to its recurring still shots of the bedroom at night and the horrors that unfold within. Even without actually showing anything, “Paranormal” reveals more than “Blair” did, providing that little extra push in the crap-your-pants direction thanks to incredibly skin-crawling sound work built into the fake documentary format. Nothing proves more disturbing than a static shot of a couple asleep in bed while, unaware to them, lumbering footsteps produced by an invisible source thunder slowly up the staircase toward them. Between the lines there’s little there, but unlike in other genres, nothing more than an examination of what scares us most is necessary.
Peli turns out to be a heck of a director, taking his understandably middling leads to planes of effectiveness that acquit them as film school thespians, or at least as actors above the levels of Keanu Reeves and Kristen Stewart. But most impressive has to be Peli’s quite correct–and lucrative–idea that the oldest horror tropes, when performed earnestly and economically, are absolutely the most bloodcurdling. Recommended for anyone who can stand it.
Rating: Four and a Half of Five Stars