(Directed by Oren Peli, running time 86 minutes)
WARNING: Due to the shaky camera technique used in the film, some may experience nausea at one point.
I don’t believe in ghosts, and if they were real I can’t understand how they have power over the living. Because of this, if I were a character in a horror film I would obviously play the skeptic who appears in just the first quarter only to be killed off as a result of his own cynicism. What is a text book example of horror film cliché here, thankfully doesn’t apply much elsewhere in the latest of shaky camera faux documentaries; Paranormal Activity.
The set up couldn’t be any more simple: young couple Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat as actors) are haunted by an unknown spirit and film each night’s sleep while at the same time their constant personal difficulties and unease from an ever increasing, you guessed it, paranormal activity. Besides some quick exposition explaining that Katie of the two has been haunted as such before, the film jumps straight ahead with character interaction by day and long still horror sequences at night, with the latter as the clear highlight.
Where other shaky cam formats like The Blair Witch Project rely on distorted movements and cries from a cast of teenagers to induce horror (a rather feeble attempt in this one’s opinion), Paranormal Activity however removes the shaky element most of the time in favor of wide angle lens shots of the couple’s bed room at night as they sleep while at any moment something out of the ordinary could phase one square foot of the screen. It is at these moments where the film truly shines as a more competent form of film horror in a cluttered industry of cheap shocks and over the top gore. Further more, not only does more actually happen than the Blair Witch in both horror and well placed dialogue, but we can see clearly what to be afraid of (the activity, not the ghost, you never do) even when the camera is shaky and the audience can understand it through and through. The paranormal activity in question starts out as nothing more than a flickering light and swaying door before making it’s presence known further like making loud footsteps and noise, among some other really unusual and sinister happenings I won’t spoil for you. Every time these moments occur and become more extreme, I found myself and those around me more fixated on the big screen than usual. Our intentions were to spot the activity as it develops but half the time you won’t, which of course makes it all the more shocking and thus likely to make you jump from your seat. And this is coming from someone who has been borderline completely desensitized in the horror genre.
But this film is not without shame, primarily in the dialogue department during the day. While the two lead characters and brief minor roles are believable enough in their delivery, I have to remind myself that not only are these people being terrorized by a malevolent spirit, they 100% believe it. As a result I find the segments where they talk with friends and each other about other matters rather odd since real people as they’re trying to portray would be entirely fixated, enthralled or even insane over the notion of genuine contact with the other side, let alone whether it’s out to get you or not. The character Micah jokes initially too much about the situation and is, at first not likable as a consequence. Further more at one point during the day time segments, Katie outright says she can feel the entity looking at her while breathing over her shoulder... hair moving and everything. So why is it Micah isn’t phased nor does anything paranormal happen during other mid-days, particularly towards the end?
But I digress since this is most likely me just nitpicking. Most of the dialogue does actually contribute to the plot such as why they don’t simply just move house or use exorcism, instead of just confirming that the characters are feeling scared... which we already know of from the very beginning. Paranormal Activity as it stands is one of the better examples of it’s (sub)genre, relying on building real tension and surprises instead of resorting to throwing the camera in people’s darkened faces. If you’re not a fan of this style of film making before, I doubt it will change your mind but at least you can take comfort in knowing someone did try harder.