When I first heard about writer/director Oren Peli’s first person video camera horror film Paranormal Activity, I have to admit I was skeptical. Seeing some of the advertising and hearing the buzz from various sources, this film seemed to be yet another cheap video production still hoping to cash in on the “magic” generated by The Blair Witch Project. Fortunately, after seeing the film at a sold-out midnight screening during Austin’s Fantastic Fest, I can thankfully say my first impressions of the film were completely wrong . . . mostly.
The premise of the film is simplicity itself. A young couple have lived together for a few years and gradually there have been strange and unexplained sounds and the woman (Katie Featherston) it is revealed has been experiencing this type of “activity” since she was a young girl. Her boyfriend, the annoyingly overconfident Micah (Micah Sloat), is determined to get to the bottom of these phenomenons and so begins his quest to videotape the couple’s activities 24 hours a day in order to catch the ghosts in action and ultimately, to take care of the situation and get them to stop.
One of the film’s biggest strengths is that it follows the Hitchcock tradition of not showing everything. Instead, during several scenes, the camera stays in one place as the couple goes off to investigates a noise or other disturbance and the audience is left only able to hear what’s happening, their imagination filling in the blanks. This conceit serves the film far more effectively than an outlandish display of gore or other visual effects would have. This technique is used very effectively in Paranormal Activity, much more than it has been lately in films like Cloverfield or Quarantine.
Naturally, things don’t go exactly according to Micah’s plan and the frequency and severity of the paranormal activity escalates invading the couple’s home and more and more driving them to the brink of fear and exhaustion. During their struggles to understand with what is happening, Katie begins to behave even more strangely and the tension between the couple also continues to escalate as well. Micha continues to insist he will handle the problem and Katie becomes more and more desperate and terrified.
This source of struggle between the couple, and other bits of backstory revealed as the film progresses, gives their relationship just enough believability to elevate them above what could have been two stereotypical characters: the arrogant, overconfident male and the female victim. Instead, their struggles and conflicts make them seem more real and therefore what seems to be happening to them is made all the more real as well.
Besides the filmmakers following the “less is more” conceit, another thing that impressed me is that they, even with many opportunities, never went for the “cheap” scare. Instead, the film builds tension effectively, even through the repetition of the single camera angle in the bedroom, as the incidents grow more disturbing and the audience is left to wonder more and more just how this couple will finally deal with the entity that is obviously become a dangerous part of their lives. They do this much better here than even The Blair Witch Project, where the video gimmick is always in your face and a part of the action. Here, having the camera seems more “natural” and it even makes more sense during scenes where nobody takes the camera with them and we are left only able to hear what’s happening.
Unfortunately, even with its many strengths, the film’s biggest weakness is its conclusion. After a great buildup and several scenes where the audiences is genuinely scared, even among the horror savvy crowd you find at midnight during Fantastic Fest, the film falls short at the end and seems to take the obvious and rather simplistic way out — which is unfortunate. Plus, there are a few questions of logic and some inconsistencies, particularly with the “entity” and its actions, that perhaps reveal the film’s somewhat eclectic past and the long road to this supposedly final form.
Still, even with its shortcomings, Paranormal Activity is still definitely worth seeing. Its few problems are mostly overshadowed by its simple premise, well-executed production and effective use of both the first person video camera and the audience’s imagination. While it won’t necessarily provide the type of blatant scream-enduing fear portrayed in some of the film’s advertising, it will most likely have some effect on you and may even cause you to question some of those noises in your own house late at night after coming home from the theater. Which, in the end, is all you can really ask from a horror film.