Hand-held horror film terrifies viewers
November 6, 2009
To say that “Paranormal Activity” is like no horror movie you’ve ever seen is an understatement.
The film, completed on an anemic $15,000 budget, is decisive proof that sexy stars and overblown special effects budgets are not requisite in the recipe for terrifying audiences. What writer/director Oren Peli has done is craft an intensely psychological fright fest that, despite its near - derailing flaws, succeeds overall as one of the most uniquely spine-tingling events since “The Blair Witch Project.”
The plot is simple - there is none. The bulk of the story can be summed up in two sentences: In order to discover the source of some strange nocturnal happenings, Katie and Micah purchase a night-vision camera to record what happens while they sleep. We get to watch that footage.
Micah’s excitement over his new toy quickly escalates to obsession as he frustratingly attempts to document everything that happens in the house; after one violent scare Katie even yells, “Did you actually go back for your camera?” Micah slowly becomes oblivious to her fear, focusing more on his Ghost Hunters-like fantasy than his tormented partner.
The film goes through great lengths to feel like it’s footage found after the fact. The primary benefit of the setup is the illusion of reality. Unlike recent handheld films such as “Cloverfield” and “Quarantine,” which look real, PA feels real - on a dark and guttural level. What is happening on screen has no rational explanation, and the knowledge that Micah has left the camera alone on a tripod only adds to the claustrophobic sense of tension and dread. The film reeks of amateur photography, but that absence of professionalism only adds credence to the notion that Katie and Micah are totally alone, and that the occurrences are not just cheap parlor tricks.
Katie, who has been tortured by these strange happenings since she was eight, eventually calls in the advice of a ghost psychic (Mark Fredrichs) who informs her that the presence is demonic in nature. He does recommend a demonologist, who is conveniently “out of town” for a few days. It is this cliche plot device that rips us out of the film’s trance, nearly shattering the deception of documentary.
Beyond this obvious contrivance, the film gradually suffers from some minor pacing problems. The appeal here is what happens when the lights go out, but Peli spends too much time in the daylight. He tries exploring the evolving dynamic between Katie and Micah and their increasingly hostile feelings towards each other - negativity that may actually be fueling the demon, but the abundance of tedious bickering begins to border on outright boredom.
Perhaps these cuts to characterization could have worked had they answered some lagging questions about the couple. Katie reveals that she has been plagued since she was eight, but why has she never sought help before now? And more interestingly, why is Micah so averse to seeking that assistance? It is his inexplicable fetish over provoking the presence and then waiting to document the results that will ultimately cause you to detach from any sense of caring whether or not the couple is going to survive the possession; you’ll just wait anxiously for them to shut up and go to bed.
Despite these flaws, however, “Paranormal Activity” works. It taps into our most basic and primal fears, and is a bold reminder that our imagination is scarier than amount of splashy CG or f/x Hollywood has to offer. Your time in the theater will be satisfactorily tense, but the real terror doesn’t begin until you go home and turn off your bedroom lights for the first time…
Ken Weigend is an alumnus of UW-River Falls. He was editor of the Student Voice during spring semester 2010.