This is a low-budget horror movie that uses the increasingly common concept of being a video taken by the people within the film, showing what happened to them. It’s a sort-of cross between The Blair Witch Project and the early 1980s horror movie The Entity.
Katie and Micah (played by Katie Featherstone and Micah Sloat) are a young couple living in an identikit suburban home in the US. She’s a student, he’s a day trader, and they’re as convincing a couple as I’ve seen on screen, which is good since although there are some other characters by and large the whole film rests on their performances and the credibility of their relationship.
Katie has been haunted since the age of eight by an unseen presence that sometimes visits her at night, moving things around, breathing on her, generally frightening her. As the film opens, it’s started to happen again, and Micah has bought a (surprisingly large) video camera with the idea of filming them both as they sleep so that they can see exactly what’s going on.
As ‘found’ footage concepts go, it’s better than most. Cloverfield suffers from the sheer improbability of the characters continuing filming (and how well they do so) in the face of New York’s destruction. Here, they’ve bought the camera precisely in order to film the supernatural events, for most of the film it’s stationary as they set it up to capture events in the bedroom and only move it when they need to (though on occasion Micah still takes it along when you really question whether he would), and it’s just much easier to believe that this is their footage.
Even better, they talk about the camera’s presence in a way that’s not profoundly annoying. Diary Of The Dead irritates by having several characters repeatedly question why the protagonist is carrying a camera everywhere and pointing out how stupid it is, which doesn’t help the viewer get over the same issues. Here, Micah suggests to Katie that they film themselves having sex (she says no), and it’s clear later why he wants to keep filming events even once she asks him to stop.
What’s also good in Paranormal Activity is how low-key most of the events filmed are. Doors moving of their own accord, lights turning on, if it really happened it would be very scary and they are frightened when they see these things on camera, but it’s not beyond what you could imagine someone telling you had happened to a friend in real life (I don’t believe in ghosts, but I believe some folk do and this is the sort of thing they report).
Even better, at times it’s genuinely creepy. In one scene Katie gets out of the bed, stands next to it, then starts to turn and stops mid-way to stare at Micah as if just noticing him. She then stands there for over two hours, just staring at him. It’s profoundly sinister, suggesting possession without any need for projectile vomit or spinning heads (not that there’s anything wrong with such things).
Where Paranormal Activity worked less well for me is that it still remains fairly dependent on character stupidity. Micah is hard to like, when Katie says no to making a sex tape he tries to do so anyway, lying to her that it’s turned off (she notices, but doesn’t seem that bothered by his behaviour). He takes the presence of what they decide is essentially a demon stalking her as an affront to his masculinity, deciding to deal with it himself, essentially because he’s the man and so it’s his job. He’s just not particularly likeable, and at times he’s downright idiotic (here’s a tip, if an invisible demon ever smashes the picture of you and your girlfriend but only scratches up your face in the picture, don’t stand there wondering what it might mean. Odds are it means it doesn’t like you).
Micah basically challenges the demon, tries to take it on, and with that its behaviour escalates. It could spoil the film to say how it raises the stakes, so I won’t, but it is fair to say it starts to go distinctly beyond strange noises during the night.
Paranormal Activity eventually faces the classic problem of horror cinema; it’s at its scariest when everything is implied, when you don’t know what could happen and so anything could. As it progresses, it becomes clearer where it’s going, and for me because of that it gets less scary. It’s well paced, the build-up is slow and that’s to its advantage, and coming in at 82 minutes it definitely doesn’t outstay its welcome, it’s just that in the end where you get to isn’t as scary as the journey there.
Still, for putting an often quite traditional haunting in such a modern and characterless house, for having an on-screen couple who utterly persuade as actually being a couple, and for making a film that at times genuinely is creepy director Oren Peli deserves praise. It’s an interesting film that’s been over-hyped, but that’s not its fault, and if you go in expecting a decent and measured ghost movie rather than one of the greatest horror films ever made then you may even give it higher marks than I did.
I saw a pre-release version that came without extras. The ending on the final release of the film is rather disappointingly conventional, however there are alternate endings which sound stronger and which I hope will make their way onto the final DVD release. (In the meantime, I would avoid Wikipedia which discusses all the endings in some detail.)