Somebody up there likes me, and so I light a candle at the altar of the movie gods in thanks for delivering to this scare-starved horror buff a horror film worthy of the name. Written, produced, and directed by Oren Peli on a micro budget of $15,000, Paranormal Activity reinforces what The Blair Witch Project — to which it has been compared — proved, which is big budgets and knockout visual effects aren’t necessary to induce genuine terror. I can happily say this indie fright flick scared me rigid.
Fear begins in the mind, and it is in the mind where Peli works his magic. What is more frightening than the unknown? Because we human beings rely heavily on our sense of sight to function, what we cannot see — and therefore cannot know through our eyes — evokes apprehension.
So Peli puts emphasis on the use of sound effects rather than on visual effects which are used modestly here. He plays directly on our fear of unexplained sounds, those proverbial “things that go bump in the night” that jolt us from our sleep. If we can’t see or otherwise discover the source of those sounds, in the absence of that information, our minds shift into overdrive, manufacturing endless possibilities, however improbable some may be, that spin us directly into a fear state.
Like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and [Rec], Paranormal Activity is filmed with a single handheld camera, using first person point-of-view. Operating the camera is Micah (Micah Sloat) who wants to capture on film over a period of days and nights the strange, inexplicable occurrences happening in the house he shares with his girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston). At night, Micah attaches the camera to a tripod placed in the bedroom, the focal point of all the activity, to record what transpires while they sleep. Through the viewfinder we get a clear view of their bed and the open doorway.
Micah doesn’t take these occurrences seriously; the film experiment for him is a fascinating mystery he’d like to solve. Katie on the other hand sees the situation is no laughing matter. After viewing the first night’s footage and consulting a psychic (Mark Fredrichs) the young couple learns they are being haunted by a demonic spirit with its eye trained on Katie. The psychic advises them against contacting the spirit. But the stubborn and insensitive Micah continues filming and later tries to communicate with it through a Ouija Board. Ironically, his well-meaning actions provoke the demon and bring it into closer contact with them.
The nighttime bedroom sequences are the scariest moments in Paranormal Activity (and the most eagerly anticipated) because it is while Micah and Katie sleep that the demon wreaks havoc on their lives and in our minds. The camera lens has the effect of dividing the screen space in two with a “main stage” to the right (the bed), and an “off stage” to the left (the doorway). Initially, the action takes place off stage. It is what we hear off stage rather than what we see which frightens us because Peli gives us little to see — a swinging door, lights flicking on and off, a vague shadow moving across the door, large powder foot prints that resemble chicken feet.
The film’s pacing is pitch perfect building in intensity as each night gets progressively creepier. A feeling of powerlessness and inevitability descends on the visibly shaken Katie who begins to collapse in on herself. Featherston and Sloat don’t appear to be acting, their behaviors and dialog come across as natural and believable — they could be our next-door neighbors (but hopefully not). We care about these two because their fears are also ours.
Peli leads us inexorably toward the film’s shocking final scene which strikes like a blow to the solar plexus because we don’t see it coming. The newbie filmmaker has given us the most terrifying horror film of 2009, and one of the finest in recent years. Halleluiah!