Upon leaving the cinema at the conclusion of Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity, I noted two things. The first: I had just taken part in one of the most enjoyable cinema-going experiences of my life. The second: While the film was expertly made and intensely frightening, it was perhaps not as disturbing as many had stated. And then I went to bed. I say “went to bed” and not “went to sleep” for obvious reasons. Several weeks later, with bags under my eyes and a general sense of unease in my own bedroom, I acknowledge that Paranormal Activity is one of the most terrifying films ever made. I usually try to abstain from such hyperbole, but the lack of zzz’s speaks for itself.
The concept is simple. Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston), a young couple “engaged to be engaged”, have recently moved in together. However, despite dating for almost three years, Katie neglected to tell her boyfriend that she has been haunted by some sort of ghostly entity since she was a little girl. Oh, and that the ghostly entity has followed her to their new digs. It hadn’t been a major problem before, but lately the haunting has become more and more frequent. Micah purchases a camera which he sets up at the foot of their bed every night to record any, ahem, paranormal activity. He thinks the footage will be cool and kind of funny, just like Candid Camera. Instead, it turns out to be creepy and truly disturbing. Just like Candid Camera.
An opening title card thanks the families of Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston, as well as the San Diego Police Department for releasing this video footage. There are no closing credits besides a single slide of copyright information. Every other moment of the film is presented from the perspective of Micah’s resilient camera, including the minutiae of their daily life and visits from a (frankly, unhelpful) psychic. The reality established by director Peli is absolving and believable, thanks primarily to the performances of Sloat and Featherston, who seem to be truly terrified throughout the film. I’m not sure what it was like on the set during filming, but based on their performances, Sloat and Featherston might well have seen the devil himself.
For this film to work, the cinematography needs to seem amateurish. After all, how good would you be at framing a scene when you’re running down the stairs trying to find your missing partner? However, don’t mistake the shaky-handy-cam for amateur filmmaking. Peli, making his feature film debut, shows off some neat tricks that directors with multi-million dollar budgets have trouble pulling off. He understands the basic building blocks of fear; bumps in the night, shadows, Ouija boards, mysterious footsteps, and even just being in the dark. This is Horror Cinema 101. However, Paranormal Activity never feels derivative. It is as if Peli has reverse-engineered everything he finds scary in movies and re-enacted them on a shoestring budget. Now they feel real and all the more terrifying.
By placing the camera in a stationary position on a tripod at the foot of the bed (which is where it stays for most of the film), Peli boxes the audience into this claustrophobic bedroom. On a big screen, you simply do not know where to look. Concentrate too long on the door at the left of the frame and you might miss out on some action on the other side of the room. Conversely, if you are hoping to look away from any spooky stuff, the only respite you can find will be the inside of your eyelids. Peli teases the audience expertly. Scenes remain silent and still; not for long, but long enough to make you sweat. The terror of anticipation and its abrupt release, particularly in the final scene, is exhilarating. I had been sitting so still in the cinema seat, that when I finally got up to leave, my head swam with endorphins. The next morning, my leg and arm muscles seized up.
The film’s closest stylistic relative is The Blair Witch Project, which I personally still find scary but has been the butt of some virulent backlash in recent years. I will say that Paranormal Activity is far scarier than The Blair Witch Project. While Blair Witch teased the audience with ambiguity, Peli’s film shows us what to be afraid of. As the couple go to bed each night, they are subjected to increasingly disturbing ghostly torment. At first they hear a rustling noise downstairs; then their bedroom door simply creaks back and forth; then … it gets much worse. Let me just say this. When a psychic suggests you call a demonologist, you should really call a demonologist.
The story behind Paranormal Activity is almost as captivating as the film itself. It’s been parroted incessantly at this point. The film was shot over seven days in Peli’s very own home in 2006 on a budget of only $11,000. It sold to Paramount/DreamWorks for approximately $300,000 in 2008. It was finally released this year to box office receipts of $100 million plus. Whether or not Peli, Featherston or Sloat will see much of this coin is unknown, but at least they can claim to have the most widely seen audition tape in history. Each of these three talented individuals will get (or at the very least, deserve) a lot of work based on Paranormal Activity. Theirs is the scariest film of the year and certainly a cinematic experience that will remain etched in my memory. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go get some sleep.