After moving in their new San Diego home, young couple Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) begin experiencing strange, unexplained behavior that Micah documents on camera. Unbeknownst to Micah, he learns that Katie’s been experiencing paranormal activity since she was a child. After a meeting with psychic Dr. Fredrichs (Mark Fredrichs), the couple finds out from him that the activity seems to be not from a ghost, but from a demonic presence who feeds off of negative energy, and is intent on tormenting Katie.
So a little while back, around six years and what seems like thirty sequels ago, a little film called Paranormal Activity hit the big screen. Made in 2007 for around $15,000, the Oren Peli written and directed found footage film made its way through the film festival circuit before finally being picked up by Paramount for $350,000 and given a theatrical release two years later (using their pointless “demand it” campaign that gave moviegoers the illusion they were participating in helping its release when the studio already planned a wide release anyway). What resulted was nearly $200 million earned at the box office worldwide (making it the most profitable film ever made, based on the return on investment) and a revitalization of the found footage genre, initially popularized a decade prior with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.
Of course, if Paranormal Activity came with any downside, it’s the equivalent of feeding one poor, lonely stray cat (keep in mind, this is only for argument’s sake since in reality cats are smug evil bastards), and then next thing you know your front porch is littered with a hundred other ugly stray cats begging to be fed. Following Paranormal Activity’s success, legions of horrible found footage films came crawling out of the woodwork, and I’m not even talking about just this film’s crappy sequels. Yet, despite all the copycats and innumerable amount of films that have burned the genre straight into the ground by using the format for no reason other than just to use it, Paranormal Activity is a prime example of how to do the tired genre right.
Peli’s direction is so simple, yet so effective. The entire film takes place inside one house, no fancy effects are used, and Micah and Katie are the only actors present for the whole film, with only two other minor supporting roles of a paranormal psychic and a friend of Katie’s popping up periodically. Most importantly, and this one is key ’cause it’s a plot device a number of junk found footage movies fail to use, it’s all captured from the perspective of Micah’s lone camera, lending credibility to it being “found footage”.
At times the camerawork looks amateurishly done, but that’s exactly the point. An ordinary couple racing down the stairs with a camera in response to a paranormal encounter ain’t exactly gonna look like Emmanuel Lubezki’s filming things here. However, there’s nothing cheap or amateurish about Peli’s filmmaking craft, and when the camera’s stabilized on a tripod for scenes in the bedroom at night, Peli unveils some nifty tricks.
This isn’t terrifying from a conventional standpoint. It’d be easy to make a 90-minute film that’s nothing more than jumping out and screaming “BOO!!” at the audience. Instead, Peli develops a creepy atmosphere that builds over the course of this film’s run. Since CGI and the obligatory sound effects that are partnered up with jump scares would diminish the effectiveness of the film’s primary device, things are kept simple. Using lighting and sound techniques such as an occasional shadow or slow, thudding footsteps going up the stairs, Peli builds the film’s tension nicely. You’d also be surprised at what he’s capable of doing for unsettling suspense with something as simple as the camera fast-forwarding through hours of footage while Micah and Katie are asleep. Not much occurs during those moments, but what does occur, and the fact that anything is occurring to begin with, is eery.
While Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston aren’t shooting for Oscar consideration, their performances are exactly what this film requires, and that’s a believably ordinary couple. Some of the scenes are just the two going about their day at home (including a session with a psychic that’s refreshingly mundane in order to appear like an actual session), but the improvising between them feels authentic and unforced (Peli didn’t write a script, but instead gave Sloat and Featherston an outline of the story as a guide, which is known as retroscripting).
Sloat is the “I got this”, too confident for his own good, boyfriend. He’s the type of man’s man, and we’re all acquainted with at least one, that probably tosses instructions to anything away ’cause he’s better than that, and Sloat does a good job at walking a fine line between partly skeptical but mostly ignorant, and so obnoxious you’re just hoping the spirit gives him a good paranormal kick in the ass. For a good portion of the film, however, Sloat is behind the camera, while Featherston’s in front of it, and she carries the entire film. There’s not a second where she’s unable to sell the fear and frustration she’s experiencing over whatever presence it is that gets its kicks over tormenting her.
There is one moment, however, that feels contrived when the psychic explains to the couple that his demonologist colleague is coincidentally out of town for a few days when they need him most. That there must be only one available demonologist in the entire state of California is quite a stretch, but one unbelievable plot point by no means ruins the entire film.
Fun fact: Back during its release, I saw this for a second time in the theater with my dad and sister. I successfully convinced her that the footage was authentic, hence the lack of any opening or closing credits and thanking both Micah and Katie’s families, as well as the police department for releasing the footage.
She slept with our parents later that night.
Paranormal Activity is proof that minimalism, when used appropriately, can produce great results. No, it’s not “scary”, and I’ll be the first to admit that mainstream horror fans may not get much out of this. But writer/director Oren Peli has put together a cleverly constructed haunted house movie that takes advantage of a tension device previously perfected by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg: The fear of what’s not seen but can still be felt is far more disturbing than even the ugliest monster spotted out in the open.