Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Oren Peli
Writer: Oren Peli
Producer: Steven Schneider, Jason Blum
Stars: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs, Amber Armstrong, Ashley Palmer
A young couple uses a video camera to record evidence of a demon they believe is haunting their suburban home.
Not since “The Blair Witch Project” has a movie been as divisive as “Paranormal Activity.” Unsurprisingly, both films are “found footage,” a love it or hate it sub-genre of horror that is itself a lightning rod for vocal fans to either laud it or loathe it.
Appreciation for the film is then partially dependent on one’s tolerance of the now popular handheld camera format. Though the real furor over the film has to do with whether or not it can truly be considered scary. At least some of the animosity directed at “Paranormal Activity” comes from self-proclaimed diehard horror fans that have difficulty processing mainstream success in a realm they wish to remain niche. These are the types of entitled opinions that fear losing credibility if they profess to like something commercially popular.
A more objective approach to breaking down “Paranormal Activity” should examine two things. How the idea and presentation work cinematically, and how the film intends its scares to come together in affecting the viewer. Drawing a conclusion regarding the film’s success in the latter is far trickier than doing the same for the former.
The story driving “Paranormal Activity” is that Katie has been haunted by a demon since childhood. Whatever the invisible entity is, it has followed her to the San Diego home she now shares with her boyfriend Micah. In an attempt to capture recorded evidence of the supernatural activity, Micah brings home a camera and begins documenting their everyday lives. And not just every waking hour, but the sleeping ones, too.
Right off the bat, the very premise of the movie simultaneously silences the most common found footage question and the most common haunted house question. Why do they film everything? They have to. Because they never know when or how the entity will manifest itself. Why don’t they leave? It would not matter. The demon has been following Katie from place to place since age eight.
Filming commenced with an outline only modestly more robust than the summary above. “Paranormal Activity” relies on “retroscripting” to fill in the blanks through actor improvisation. And it works. The dialogue has a natural rhythm that never comes from a mouth working too hard to come up with something to say. Ad-libbed lines can stick out like a sore thumb with false starts and hard stops. Here, the cast is organically immersed in their fiction while avoiding the danger of over-thinking as a performer.
Katie Featherston is quite good. Her blend of “regular girl” attractiveness and assertiveness in her relationship balances nicely with brief peeks at naïve susceptibility and occasionally annoying behavior. Although when it comes to annoying behavior, Micah takes top honors. Micah Sloat does right by the role. He just happens to be burdened with playing a frustrating jerk. Many are understandably turned off by his characterization. Even though that is how the screenplay wants him to be, watching his ongoing lack of compassion in action can put the audience in a sour mood that saps away at any capacity for empathy.
Like it or not, “Paranormal Activity” took the format made famous by “The Blair Witch Project” and solidified the template for this style of horror. The gradual escalation of tension and breadcrumb trail revealing the backstory maintains forward momentum at an intentional pace. The approach is effective at creating moments of extended anticipation while depicting an accessible and realistic suburban nightmare.
It is this blueprint that makes “Paranormal Activity” the definitive “bumps in the night” movie. The line separating those bored by the delivery and those finding fright in long silences ended by sudden thuds is drawn by the viewer’s personalized fear in such occurrences. Those who find ghost stories to be eye-rolling poppycock have zero chance of identifying with the fuss the movie created. Nervous types frequently woken by unexplainable floorboard creaks and a perceived tug at the bed sheets have much more to worry about.
Many people do believe that ghosts and demons exist. For them, “Paranormal Activity” is less of a dice roll as to whether or not it will keep them up at night afterwards. If that is a sentiment hard to identify with, simply acquiesce and let that side of the aisle have their thrills. Regardless of one’s personal preference for how scary it may or may not be, “Paranormal Activity” has to be admired for straightforward storytelling, a well-crafted structure, and relatable horror with an inarguable ability to captivate conventional audiences.
Review Score: 70