With comparisons to the cult favourite The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity has a heck of a lot of credibility flying its way. After years of the worn-out Saw oeuvre, countless bland teen horror flicks and mediocre thrillers, scary movie lovers everywhere might finally have something that will make them sleep with the lights on again.
Filmed with a miniscule $11, 000 budget and a single low-grade camera, the film has a similar concept to its 1999 Blair Witch counterpart. A San Diego couple spend one week documenting paranormal events around their house. Weird noises are heard, doors open and close mysteriously, but it’s the documentary style and haphazard cinematography that effectively enhance the film’s macabre setting.
The marketing alone is reason enough to talk about this movie, for it was largely publicized by viral videos. After showings in U.S. college auditoriums, its trailer was circulated on YouTube and Yahoo! and viewers were provided with a link where they could demand the movie to be shown in their city. This past weekend it was released across Canada and even outsold the much-anticipated Saw VI.
Probably the most remarkable thing about Paranormal Activity, though, is that it captures every stereotypical characteristic of a horror movie but in a documentary format. Paranormal-intuitive protagonist gets accused of being delusional? Check. Alpha dude shenanigans? Check. Sex? Check. Cute couple moments? Check. Building up to the grand scare by a bunch of false alarms? Check. To some extent, the obvious inclusion of these horror movie staples cheapens the validity of the film’s reality premise, but it’s nevertheless entertaining.
That the film manages to have any plot intrigue is a feat, for there’s little to draw from. Aside from the couple Micah and Katie, there are only two other people who ever enter the scene. One is a psychic who spends five minutes alluding to the idea that Katie needs a nicer boyfriend so she won’t hallucinate and the other is a virtually mute friend of Katie’s whom we see for no more than a couple minutes.
The first 20 minutes of the film are a little difficult to watch since everyone is waiting for Casper to pop out of the closet. Little but benign bickering between Micah and Katie transpires. The other source of discomfort lies in the dreadfully shoddy camerawork—it makes your parents’ home videos look like Peter Jackson flicks. Again, this serves to create a kind of intimacy and realism. Some might say the plot of the film is overly thin, but the younger Internet generation would likely see its stark simplicity as liberating and an integral part of the movie’s allure. When I saw the film, the experience was more like watching a class project than a mass-distributed production, with audience members bonding out of apprehension and shouting advice at Micah and Katie.
The lack of plot also puts great pressure on the film’s couple to capture our attention throughout the movie. Micah and Katie pull this off quite respectfully. Fun and affectionate, they’re like the adorable couple you wouldn’t mind third-wheeling it with. Their fights over how best to tackle the ghost situation are also quite amusing. Indeed, much of the film plays out like your average romantic comedy rather than a horror movie. The scare tactics used in Paranormal Activity follow nicely in the school of Alfred Hitchcock, opting for slow, eerie build-up over interspersed jarring frights. Films in the horror genre command a crafty filmmaker because of their reliance on audience trickery and the inability to use blatant instruments of terror like gore and violence. Good ghost horror movies (or just good horror movies) play with the mind and make the audience petrified of the unknown. The ghost doesn’t have to constantly jump out and take a bite out of helpless children for us to be scared.
This is why Paranormal Activity is a brilliant film. It harkens back to films that didn’t rely on elaborate blood spatter props and evocative music to take us on a thrilling ride.
For most scary movies, turning the sound off destroys all suspense. The sound effects in Paranormal Activity, though, are so incredibly minimalist. Every time the haunting—the term “ghosts” are never used in the film, instead referring to the paranormal activity as “haunting”—are about to occur, there is a subtle rumbling noise. It’s difficult to determine whether this is purposely added or whether the sound editors simply turned up the sound so we could hear the clatter better. Perhaps your interpretation will depend on whether you believe this film to be real or not. Without a doubt, this is one of the most terrifying movies you will ever see. If you leave the theatre and aren’t wary of dark rooms for at least a day afterwards, there’s no other movie out there that will make you wonder about the spooky unknown.
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