Is Paranormal Activity the scariest movie ever made? Does it show us the new face of horror? Is Oren Peli this year’s new “savior of the horror movie?” No, no and no. Even on the sliding scale of cutting the movie some slack for being made on an $11,000 or $15,000 budget (both figures have been reported), I can’t call it more than a partially effective work that’s been wildly overpraised—often by people who see enough horror pictures to know better. I like the fact that it derailed the seasonal Saw juggernaut by coming in at number one on the opening weekend of Saw VI, but I’d be more impressed by that feat if I didn’t feel that it got there mostly on hype—and I won’t be sold on the staying power of its lead till after Halloween.
Paranormal Activity is, however, an accomplishment. Any do-it-yourself movie that makes it all the way to a finished product is that much, but one that turns an almost nonexistent budget into passable entertainment is something more—regardless how much of a stunt the whole thing is. And make no mistake: Paranormal Activity is a stunt. It cashes in on its very cheapness by going the route of The Blair Witch Project (1999) and pretending that what we’re seeing is found footage of something that really happened. I freely concede, however, that it’s a better, creepier, more entertaining and watchable film than Blair Witch, but then so are the collected works of Ed Wood.
The film is a bare-bones affair, as you might expect. It has little actual story, and merely details a series of events. The events are the haunting of a woman named Katie (Katie Featherston), who has been pursued—or at least observed—by a demon from the age of 8. The film charts what happens when her boyfriend, Micah (Micah Sloat), attempts to get to the bottom of this by setting up a video surveillance camera in their bedroom to see what goes on while they sleep.
Now that sounds a lot duller than it is—especially considering that not much happens for a fairly long time—because the film wisely doesn’t limit itself to this surveillance footage. This is filled out by home-movie footage of the couple—along with some friends and the odd psychic expert—talking about what’s happening. To accomplish this, the film turns Micah into an increasingly obsessed would-be documentarian—an aspect of the film that has caused it to be taken as a dig at our narcissistic fixation with detailing our every movement via things like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. It’s an interesting reading, but I’m unconvinced the social critique was intentional. It seems more likely that this is merely recycling the kind of growing obsession of the hero we’ve seen for years in movies like Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943).
Not surprisingly, the non-surveillance footage has the downside of meaning lots and lots of shaky-cam camerawork, but at least it’s the kind of shaky camerawork that tries to be as steady as possible, which is far less annoying and far more believable. Then too, since Micah is in many of these shots, the camera has to be put in a stationary position a good deal of the time. It’s also worth noting that the movie cheats on a few occasions by either using shots that it’s unlikely Micah could be shooting, or by having Katie man the camera, which is out of character with her overall attitude about the experiment.
Reservations aside, Paranormal Activity works better than it has any right to. It helps that the two leads are reasonably credible actors and are able to engage our sympathy to some degree. That their dialogue manages to sound real without being mind-numbingly boring is also in its favor. But what really makes the movie work is its increasing sense of dread. By the ending—even when you can predict what’s going to happen—it has amassed a credible sense of creepiness that is held in place by the lack of a credits roll, leaving the viewer staring at a dark screen. Did it terrify me? No. But it did creep me out. The only thing that terrified me was Paramount’s decision to trim Peli’s original ending in order to leave the proceedings open to a sequel. Now, that may give me nightmares. Rated R for language.