Paranormal Activity (2007) / Horror-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for language and scary images
Running time: 86 min.

Cast: Micah Sloat, Katie Featherston, Mark Fredrichs
Director: Oren Peli
Screenplay: Oren Peli
Review published October 24, 2009

Day trader Micah and college student Katie have taken the next step in what's become a long-term relationship by moving in together in their large suburban San Diego house.  What should have been a great beginning hits some early turbulence when Katie reveals to Micah that she believes she has been watched over by an unseen and unidentifiable presence that disturbs her sleep and whispers to her in the night.  In order to see if Katie's stories of a haunting are true, Micah buys a video camera and records their every moment in the house.  The recording is intrusive, but soon bears fruit, as phenomena begin occurring that can't be easily explained away as just the settling of a new house.  Micah becomes obsessed with capturing the moments on video, and believes he can figure out a way to circumvent the disaster that a visiting psychic has warned them about, but the unseen force is becoming more aggressive the more attention it gets.

Paranormal Activity is another entry in the evolutionary low-budget horror genre kick-started by The Blair Witch Project in which the action on the screen is a mock document of actual events, shot through the home video camera of those being terrorized by malevolent forces.  Both films generated a good deal of buzz prior to major release, and while Blair Witch will always be the one considered the most groundbreaking for the genre, Paranormal Activity  is the more effective of the two in that it generates more intense dread and believable events.  Reportedly shot for about $15,000 (not even 1/20 of the budget for Blair Witch) , the storyline is simple and not unpredictable, but still arrests the attention nevertheless.  Writer-director Oren Peli is able to deliver the goods promised, primarily due to the effectively natural build up to the events to transpire later.  Although there are some mild contrivances necessary in order to keep the story moving along, for the most part, Peli does make the events plausible enough to accept without laughing at them. 

Credit should also be paid to the actors, who, despite limited experience, do very well in what had to be mostly ad-libbed performances done in long takes, and without much time for reshoots.  If they seem like they're acting, the entire project is a failure, so it is to their credit that Sloat and Featherston, who reportedly had not known each other prior to filming, seem like they are a couple that has known each other for some time, sometimes loving, sometimes testy. 

One especially impressive aspect of the film that is an impediment to enjoying many other horror entries surrounding a haunting is that Peli establishes early on that the malevolent force is not tied to the house.  It travels with Katie wherever she may go, and it is unpredictable.  There's no reason to leave the house, and given the nature of the events, it's uncertain just what they can do about it.  It's not perfect, as it would seem that events are soon captured on video that Micah would reveal to someone other than his girlfriend in order to gain attention or assistance.  Even in this, Peli does a good job establishing that Micah is a "Captain Ahab"-type, who feeds off of the thrill of the hunt for the "demon", and seeks to do it all on his own.

Paranormal Activity isn't a scare-a-minute fright-fest, but it is effectively creepy, and it is the sort of film that stays with you after viewing.  It's not a movie you want to see if you're going to spend the evening in a house by yourself, so be warned that if you're easily spooked, it is likely to keep you up at night.  Peli exploits the vulnerability we all feel when we're in bed asleep, awakened by strange noises in the house and cloudy in our judgment from not having our full faculties.  We walk around through the house without sufficient knowledge of what's awaiting, but certain we cannot go back to sleep without knowing just what is the cause of the disturbance.  We don't want to find anything, of course, but finding nothing is almost as unsettling, as we wonder, even if we have searched the house thoroughly, if we are ever truly alone.

-- Followed by Paranormal Activity 2 (2010), Paranormal Activity 3 (2011), Paranormal Activity 4 (2012), and Paranormal Activity 5 (2014).  Also followed by a spin-off, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014).

 Qwipster's rating:

©2009 Vince Leo