Forget “The Blair Witch Project,” “Cloverfield” and “Quarantine,” “Paranormal Activity” sets a new standard for the faux-documentary fright-fest. Never have I been so consistently creeped out during one movie as with this subtle, yet truly eerie story of a supernatural haunting. From hardcore horror fans to those who just like to be freaked out once in a while, this is the must-see shocker of the Halloween season.
Not since watching “Signs,” which gave my mom nightmares for two weeks and convinced her to stay out of the dank, dark depths of our house’s basement whenever possible, have I seen a horror film able to strike such dreadful fear throughout a viewer’s psyche, especially to this great an effect. And that uneasy feeling continues long after it’s over, too.
One reason “Paranormal Activity” induces such disquieting terror, and so successfully might I add, is due to its simplicity. There are only two prominent characters in the movie, Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat), a couple who’s being harassed in their home by some otherworldly force. Micah buys a hi-tech camera (which serves as the perspective for the audience) and audio recorders so he can document whatever is troubling them, and as its tormenting intensifies over time, both the young couple as well as the viewer become increasingly frightened to find out what it will do next.
The cocky and at first unafraid Micah videotapes his and Katie’s activities at home with the camera, carrying it around during the day as they slowly learn more about their situation and leaving it on in the corner for a wide shot of their bedroom while they sleep. Most of the time it’s during the middle of the nights that the evil spirit makes its presence known, where proof of its existence is captured on camera. It starts by knocking keys off a table, then by making loud noises a floor below, and progresses to sneaking into their room and slamming the door. But that’s not the least of it.
However, if there wasn’t any suspense developed before these actions, they would only be slightly spooky at most. Thankfully, first time writer and director Oren Peli steadily builds the tension for each night’s paranormal activity, particularly with an overlaid humming frequency, ever-present sense of foreboding and by raising the stakes each day. There are no hollow pop-out thrills here; every scare is hard-earned and hits home. Whenever the light down the hall mysteriously turns on or the sheet is pulled off the bed by the invisible force, goosebumps and chills will run throughout your entire body, especially down the spine.
Peli makes these moments so powerfully unnerving through the absence of computer animation, flashy gimmicks or even any gore. Almost all of the extremely low-key effects are done practically, which aids in making each one feel totally real and thus more disturbing. And because the fiend can’t be physically seen and is usually just out of view, but is often heard, this leaves a good deal up to the imagination, raising the intensity to Hitchcockian levels at some points. One scene leading to the attic is incredibly tense, specifically because you can see something up there but have no idea what it is, so you’ll imagine the worst.
Also integral to the believability of “Paranormal Activity” is the acting. In a cheap little independent flick like this, real actors can’t be afforded, so unknowns must be used instead. This actually works as a benefit for the film rather than a detriment, because recognizable actors would help bring about the realization, while you’re watching it, that this is in fact a fictitious movie and didn’t actually happen. Due to the unknowns, you’ll stay immersed for the entire runtime, and won’t recognize the film isn’t a part of reality until after leaving the theater.
Sloat and Featherston manage to make everything feel real, from their interaction with each other to their horrified reactions while being haunted. The endearing Sloat imbues the movie with most of its humor, which usually provides a nice change of pace during the daytime, as Micah’s sarcasm supplies many laughs while the two characters are developed. Featherston proves herself also quite likable, but she really shines whenever Katie is alarmed and shocked. The viewer becomes emotionally invested in this couple, getting just as wrapped up within their world and afraid as they are, so Micah and Katie feel like actual people throughout the whole film, never like actors portraying characters.
But the man who truly deserves applause here is Peli. With a minuscule budget of only $15,000 and using a single house as the set for the full movie, he has crafted one of the most efficient and atmospheric horror films of all time. Each night is more ominous than the last, creating a crescendo for the creepiness. And while he doesn’t make any incident completely terrifying until the finale, the ending is all the more effective because of that, and was one of the most frightening things I’ve ever seen.
“Paranormal Activity” is not a film for those who can’t handle legitimate scares. Some audience members were physically and psychologically shaken by the movie, and took quite some time to leave their seats after the credits. More than just a film, this is a superbly suspenseful, expertly executed and wholly unforgettable experience, the best and most chilling I’ve had at the theater yet in the horror genre.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Three and a Half out of Four Stars