Not unlike its inevitable comparison film, The Blair Witch Project, one of the most exciting things about Paranormal Activity is how while you are watching it, it feels real enough that you feel unsure whether it’s a movie or a found-footage presentation. I dissected various actions and moments in the film, searching for the cinematic mechanical justification behind an action (for example, handling sound recording throughout an entire house) in the beginning, while this movie worked up its head of steam. It played very naturalistically and felt justified and normal, and I was able to abandon myself to the fun. (Or is it a snuff film?) The whole film is 98% two people, Micah and Katie, shot entirely within their San Diego home (a very fancy one for persons of their apparent income level), shot completely with a fancy-but-still-consumer-grade digital movie camera. It feels very much like what it purports to be — Micah wanting to capture on film weird things that have started happening to them in their home.
The performances are unselfconscious when appropriate and very natural, which is the most convincing aspect of the movie all around. From their dialogue to their at-home wardrobe to their blood-curdling screams, it feels and sounds very real. Also, the cinematography is consistent with that which would be managed by an online trader who just got a fancy camera, so if you had queasy problems with Blair Witch or Cloverfield’s shaky-cam, you might want to skip this one. Realism and grounding everything else besides the actual scary thing in reality is what makes this film work. If you can manage the shakycam it’s a very nicely crafted, slow burn of a scary movie. It’s organic style means no hackneyed tension release mechanisms that sustain the audiences of most narrative horror films. Ahhh! It was only the cat.
The bursts of activity (paranormal) are varied and unpredictable and hit your various reptilian brain centers in different ways. If you normally find X scary, but chortle your way through Y, you’ll get a dose of both. The sound design also contributes a great deal to the proceedings. A nearly-sub-aural rumbling announces that something is coming, and your body learns to tense up when it hears it. (This was no fun at all driving home.) It’s all very low-tech — some sounds could literally be a group of grips lifting and dropping a couch — and this makes it feel even more convincing. Unearthly screeches or banshee music or gooey tentacles would kill the mood. Nothing is scarier than what we can imagine for ourselves. A creak of a stair caused by nothing we can see — heebie jeebies!
Katie and Micah are a believable, likable couple, knocking around their gorgeous, immaculate house, and they sell the smallest moments for full price, especially Katie. Don’t bother holding out for a stinger at the end of the credits — that menacing rumble will only end with the MPAA rating. Paranormal Activity is edited almost clinically, like an evidence tape, and with none of the framing or vanity-screen time Blair Witch sometimes betrayed. I’ll tell you one thing, it’s not the scariest movie I have ever seen, but it’s probably the most efficient and insidious. The noises in my house never seemed so loud or inexplicable as they do after seeing this. It’s a great scary treat and the filmmakers should be rewarded with your business.
MPAA Rating R-language
Release date 9/25/09 limited
Time in minutes 99
Director Oren Peli
Studio Paramount Pictures