Buzz-wise, Paranormal Activity might be the most successful DIY horror flick since The Blair Witch Project, and it’s as effectively scary as its groundbreaking predecessor. But it’s probably even more riddled with the inane character and story craft issues that bedeviled Blair Witch. With its elaborate mythology and back story, not to mention one of the shrewdest marketing campaigns in recent movie history, Blair Witch managed to make its invisible, resident evil that much more dread-inducing, all the way to the terrifying finale in the scariest haunted house since Jonathan Harker knocked on Dracula’s door. By comparison, Oren Peli’s project in simpler and easier in how it reaps its frights, and ten years since Blair Witch, in an era when the public knows how to digest the “home movie” aesthetic as part of its cinema consumption diet, it’s already won the “will they show up?” battle that was a huge question mark for Blair Witch distributor Artisan.
Katie and Micah (the characters are given the names of the actors playing them) are a happy San Diego couple, but, when Katie confesses that, since childhood, she’s been “stalked” by a troublesome spectral presence during sleep, Micah makes up his mind to capture evidence of the intruder by setting up a camera in their bedroom. What begins with unnerving but innocuous happenings — creaking doors and strange noises — escalates into the realm of the genuinely creepy and alarming. All of which begs the question why these two continue to film their torture in light of the hellish goings-on, and how they can continue to sleep at all, let alone in that infernal house? Truly, there are too many glaring problems of logic and motive in Peli’s screenplay for us to take his characters seriously on any level, and it’s obvious that Katie and Micah are just the means by which he can foist his nighttime gimmickry on his breathless audience.
Peli employs that familiar first-person, point-and-shoot, home-movie technique so what we see throughout is the footage that Micah shoots. It’s strains credulity, as it did in Blair Witch and Cloverfield, why any character would and could continue shooting video in such circumstances but questioning that choice would bring down these films’ entire conceit, so we play along. Daytime scenes consist of largely ludicrous and forced debates between Katie and Micah as to whether she should seek out professional help, i.e. a demonologist, to exorcise the demon haunting her. Micah resists Katie’s pleas, being somehow too proud to concede, and too determined to vanquish their tormentor on his own.
The paranormal events become so flagrant in nature that the characters’ resistance to seeking radical solutions and the script’s own resistance to smarten itself up become exasperating. All of Peli’s chips are on the nighttime scenes; he’s got nothing else. But what he does have is pretty chilling stuff and it comes down to his simple, static framing, consisting of the bed, the doorway, and the dark corridor beyond. Rarely has so much attention and expectation in all my movie viewing been weighed on the screen’s negative space: everything of value in Paranormal Activity originates in the uninhabited, nearly featureless left third of the camera frame set up in the bedroom. I guess that’s the hallmark of all horror: it’s always what’s off-screen or hiding in the dark that grabs our attention, and Peli exploits this notion exceptionally well.
When it’s all said and done, if you remember Paranormal Activity at all, it won’t be for the characters or Peli’s story craft — they’re both irrelevant to what will really get your pulse racing: The mysterious thuds and rumblings on the soundtrack, the ghostly ruffling of bedsheets, shadows and footprints appearing out of nowhere. And we realize that, when you get down to it, those are all the ingredients a nifty horror flick really needs.
Directed by: Oren Peli
Written by: Oren Peli
Cast: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs