The camera never lies…
Ten years ago, a low-budget horror film came out of nowhere, caused a huge sensation and went nuclear at the box office – partly thanks to a (then) ground-breaking use of internet marketing techniques. The film was, of course,The Blair Witch Project, which revolutionised the genre by using supposedly real hand-held camera footage of horrifying events happening to normal people in the backwoods of Maryland. A decade on and Paranormal Activity is following in its footsteps, and while it may be riding a huge wave of hype that has seen it do stellar business at the US box office, it packs no less of a terrifying punch, particularly because it moves that ultra-real horror into a domestic setting.
Katie and Micah are an average young American couple who share a lovely home in suburban San Diego. Everything about them is normal – apart from the fact that Katie is being troubled by an unexplained, and certainly malevolent, presence that has followed her since she was eight years old. Micah decides to buy a video camera to record events in the house, and it is this footage that makes up the film. Micah sets up the camera in their bedroom and, as they sleep strange things begin to happen – heavy footsteps on the landing, the door opening and closing, shadows moving across the room. It’s creepy stuff from the outset, but as Micah becomes resolutely determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, events become ever more violent until they reach a climax that is as shocking as it is effective.
It’s no surprise that word of mouth has helped Paranormal Activity shoot to the top of the US box office; it is utterly terrifying. The premise may be as simple as it gets, but it’s this straightforward approach that makes it so spine-chillingly effective. The thought that something could be lurking in the shadows of our own home, watching us as we sleep, is enough to send a shiver up the spine even in the broad light of day. And writer/director Oren Pelli has perfectly captured that universal, primal fear in an understated set-up that doesn’t rely on special effects to provide the scares; indeed, ingeniously, there is no evidence of any effects work throughout the whole film. And although the supernatural events start small, their ever-present nature means that there is an overwhelming sense of dread permeating every scene. We, like Katie, know that something very bad is going to happen, and it’s going to happen soon.
This suffocating atmosphere is thanks to Pelli’s clever use of camcorder footage, and the domestic intimacy it provides. The pair are utterly natural in their interactions, and we get to know them during the relative calm of the opening scenes, so developing sympathy for their plight. This is particularly so with the character of Katie, who spends the most amount of time in front of the camera – we share her increasing sense of fear and hopelessness as the situation continues to worsen. And in between the scares, we witness her psychological battle to hold onto her relationship – and her sanity – while her sense of normalcy goes to hell in a handbasket.
Yet, despite the level of closeness the audience is encouraged to develop with Katie and Micah, using hand-held footage serves another purpose. It makes the viewer a voyeur, putting us directly in line with the demon’s point of view. Just as ‘it’ watches the couple as they sleep and listens in on their conversations, so do we. We are intruding on their lives; an intrusion that has a negative effect on their relationship that is directly influencing the level of supernatural activity in the house. And through the camera’s unblinking eye, all green-tinted night vision and relentless time-code, even the most normal images – such as Katie getting out of bed – take on an uneasy significance. As Katie desperately begs Micah to stop filming as she is convinced that the camera is causing the problems, so we become implicit in her terror even as we share it.
True, Paranormal Activity may be one of the most hyped movies of the year, but it is a hype born out of genuine achievement. It may have taken two years, and the endorsement of influential fan Steven Spielberg, for Pelli to get his film to the screen, but it’s certainly been worth the wait. Intense, disturbing and with an ending that will leave even the most resolute disbeliever sleeping with the light on, it’s as much an experience as it is a piece of entertainment.
Stars Kate Featherston, Micah Sloat
Director & Screenplay Oren Pelli
Distributor Icon Film Distribution
Running Time 1hr 26mins
Opens Out Now
This review was originally published at www.moviescopemag.com