Films that make gigantic amounts of money from investments of very small amounts of money tend to be treated less like standard films and more like indicators of some profound shift in the zeitgeist. Easy Rider. Halloween. The Blair Witch Project. Paranormal Activity, Oren Peli’s smash hit, parlayed from a $15,000 budget and some post-production cleaning up, is obviously in the pseudo-genre inspired by The Blair Witch Project, as a faux-“found footage” chiller building an intense mood out of the most minimal of effects, and created less of an amazed stir when it piled up over $100,000,000 at the box office. Nonetheless the achievement still demands a pause to take stock: it reveals the still-powerful audience appeal of the no-frills horror film and the tingle of verisimilitude found in the shooting style, in complete opposition to the showy pyrotechnics of the blockbuster and the contemporary horror film which is usually more obsessed in flogging one silly with gore. Whilst it lacks the solid mythology and grounding in a well-conceived mystery milieu that Blair Witch offered, Paranormal Activity is superior in sustaining drama and at least some character conflict, grounding its tale squarely in brittle bourgeois suburbia. It’s also more radical in the way it works the cinematic space for scares, not entirely unworthy, in its way, of comparisons to Val Lewton’s suggestive, determinedly eerie style of horror film. Quite literally making a “things that go bump in the night” movie, Peli lets the frame lie dead for minutes at a time, making the audience keenly aware to the smallest manifestations of strangeness, aware of the rule that Andrei Tarkovsky once, best outlined, that when nothing happens for a few seconds, boredom results, but when nothing happens for minutes, the tension becomes enormous.
Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherstone) are a young couple, characterised as determinedly normal, neither highly intelligent nor entirely shallow, with Micah a tech nerd and stockbroker and Katie studying English at college. The film’s first act carefully weaves its way into the main story, the problem at hand taking some time to become apparent. That problem is the couple are being beset by strange nocturnal sounds and telekinetic events, and Micah, reacting with a boyish enthusiasm to the exciting mystery, has decided to film their bedroom whilst they sleep. But a psychic, Dr Frederichs (Mark Frederichs), upon visiting them, explains that he senses the presence in the house is no mere haunting ghost, but a malevolent demon that might react to provocations and step up its ambiguous programme. He gives them the name of a colleague who specialises in demons, but Micah’s determined to delve into the problem himself. Katie’s been stalked by the presence since infancy, a “little detail” that Micah quietly resents having sprung on him, and the demon leaves a taunting clue to mysteries of her past in the form of a photograph, singed from the fire that consumed her childhood home. Micah’s attempts to flush out the demon, whether by scattering talcum powder on the floor to measure its movements, or bringing in a ouija board to communicate, merely play right into the presence’s game, taking delight in teasing them and terrifying them. Katie also seems to occasionally fall into trance-like states where she stands by the bed for hours in the dark and wanders about the house.
Whilst riding a wave of first-person thrillers, many of which have managed to be inventive and spin the gimmick in their own unique way - Cloverfield, Redacted, Diary of the Dead, [Rec]/Quarantine - in terms of certain imagery and themes, Paranormal Activity is actually most notably similar to Lake Mungo (2008). Brad Anderson’s film delved with broader cinematic reflexes and a better script into an exploration of haunting as manifestation of grief whilst purveying the form of a mockumentary, exploring ambiguities of visual reproductions of reality. Peli set himself a less challenging task, not at all unforgivable considering his minuscule resources. His quietly percolating premise offers his haunting as a manifestation of any lingering baggage that weighs down the individual psyche. It can be read as any form of formative trauma – the way the “demon” is rooted in disaster and uprooting in Katie’s youth bears it out – and the lingering adult issues that foul up later relationships. Micah’s approach to the haunting, treating it first as a game and then as a personal challenge, contains potential as a study in frustration of the privileged citizen frustrated by his incapacity to maintain control over the world, something he's been raised to expect. His sense of mission also meshes nicely with both sublimation of his anger with Katie for not telling him about the presence’s part in her life sooner, and a reactive need to establish safety in his home. Unfortunately the dynamic here soon resorts to the clichéd pitting of masculine certainty (or bullishness) against feminine instinctive caution (or wimpiness), and the improvised acting by Sloat and Featherstone, whilst surprisingly good, relies on some overly basic and hackneyed character reflexes.
Paranormal Activity is nowhere near as cumulatively substantial and unsettling as
, hobbled by some poor choices on Peli’s part more as screenwriter than director. The nature of the presence is defined too early in the film, meaning that the subtle shifts in its methods and intent are too easy to grasp for the audience to be as effective as they might be, and the terror of the inexplicable is exchanged for what is basically a stunt spin on a standard horror story a la The Entity (1981). Peli announces visitations with an unnecessary, telegraphing droning sound effect, and the tricks with sound and mysteriously moving household objects would prove mere funfair antics if it wasn’t for the mood of credulity well-stoked by the actors. The film’s pivotal moment of creepiness with the ouija board is overstated and decorated by unnecessary special effects hype. Subtler moments, like a barely noticeable lick of wind batting Katie’s hair when she swears she feels the presence breathing on her, are far more striking. If the hand-held camera craze has largely created a severe deterioration in the sense of the relationship of elements in a shot exemplified by so many recent films, here Peli admirably allows his camera to be quite controlled even in motion, and knows how to use the elusive edges of a quickly moving frame to introduce a sense of oppression and paranoia. The finale, reportedly at the suggestion of Steven Spielberg, was retooled several times in looking for the right final charge, and all of the different versions are available for inspection. The one they ended up with, with a possessed Katie hurling Micah out of the darkness at the camera, is notable for the long, relished wait for the pay-off Peli indulges, and an appropriate hue of black comedy, as girly Katie, claimed at last by her tormentor becomes a leering demon capable of tossing the self-assured day trader clear across the room. Only in the very last image, of Katie leaping with an evil leer at the camera, does the film wallow in the sadly derivative. Sequels result. Lake Mungo