Despite the unmatched zeal and Web 2.0 tenacity of American fans who lined up for hours to catch midnight only shows in its early days of limited release, Paranormal Activity does not do in 2009 what The Blair Witch Project did for horror films in 1999.
That said, it does work on a lot of levels. But with all the hype surrounding the film (as with its previously mentioned mock-doc predecessor), it becomes difficult to view the film only on its own merit, for what it is: an indie film made on a nearly non-existent budget with no star power, released on a gamble to two cities in America, hoping for savvy fans with their ears to the ground to sound the alarm.
Here’s the premise: Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) find it difficult to sleep at night, what with all the demonic disturbances that seem to be going on in their home, especially in their bedroom. By means of investigation, Micah purchases a video camera and decides to roll tape while the couple sleeps, setting up the camera on a tripod with a wide-angle vista of the bedroom and the hallway beyond.
The entire film is told through the shaky lens of Micah’s camera, despite Katie’s continued pleas that he stop filming and just let her call in a demonologist. Micah insists that he can handle the situation himself, but when it becomes obvious that the disturbances are caused by more than the likes of simple ghostly haunting, troubles escalate and the couple’s future (and their sanity) becomes more and more uncertain.
Throughout the film, Micah and Katie comprise the principle cast, with limited intrusions by a psychic (the terrifically worried and flustered Mark Fredrichs) and an unnamed friend of Katie’s (Amber Armstrong). This, along with the couple’s house being the only set used, creates a sense of claustrophobia, adding to the effect that whatever haunts the house’s inhabitants is inescapable.
As the camera rolls, the audience jumps and shrieks together (this is one film in which a packed theater adds to the experience) as doors turn on their hinges and lights turn on and off. The haunting escalates as the film progresses, and while some moments inspire real jump-up-and-grab-your-neighbor reactions, the escalation never reaches a really powerful climax. Most of the film’s scary moments arrive right on cue we even know they’re coming because it’s bedtime accompanied by what passes as electrical interference in the otherwise straightforward, voices-only soundtrack.
While this limits the shock factor, Director Oren Peli knows how to keep the tension wire-tight, as the time code at the bottom of the screen speeds up and slows down. Though the audience knows something scary is coming, Peli makes us wait as the couple toss and turn in their bed.
All told, the film leaves something to be desired. Hardcore horror hounds will find it tame while most filmgoers will have the same troubles with its style as they did with The Blair Witch Project and the more recent Cloverfield. Its first act is slow and tedious, although not devoid of humour and mild scares, while its second act fails to create a lasting impression, relying too heavily on a contrived plot where audiences would perhaps prefer a simple haunted house experience.
Paranormal Activity is a film that suffers ultimately from taking itself too seriously. One must admire the path that brought it to neighbourhood cinemas across America, and now the UK, and hopefully it will lead to more independent, low-budget, personal films being released to the decision-making power of a conscientious Web 2.0 audience. As an experiment, this one’s a success, and for that reason it should not be missed just don’t expect to lose too much sleep over it.