Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity

****1/2

Reviewed by: James Gracey

Every once in a while a film comes along with a reputation that precedes it. Of course, some of these films are less deserving of the hype than others; luckily Paranormal Activity isn’t one of them and proves to be a genuinely well crafted and effective little chiller. Having already caused something of a stir in the horror community and now breaking out into mainstream box office success, thanks to word of mouth and savvy online petitions, Paranormal Activity has already drawn comparisons to the likes of The Blair Witch Project, and could very well do for your own home what Blair Witch did for camping.

Writer/director Oren Peli makes effective use of the limited location – a perfectly normal looking, well lived-in suburban house, and immediately sets about enticing us into the world of its inhabitants – young couple Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat). We soon learn these typical twenty-somethings have been experiencing some odd events in the night – events that have apparently plagued Katie since she was a young girl.

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When the couple seek advice from a psychic only to be told he feels out of his depth, Micah decides to film their attempts to investigate the weirdness themselves. Taping them while they sleep, his footage showcases evidence that they are not alone and something altogether sinister is, indeed, afoot. Events turn a tad repetitive, with the couple bickering about what they should do during the daylight hours and then as soon as night falls, we see the same shot of their bed as ‘something’ intrudes upon their privacy to wreak ominous havoc. With each visit to their sleeping hours though, the tension is cranked up even further and the shuddersome mood is palpable.

Paranormal Activity relays on a back-to-basics strategy – fear of the unknown. Fear of the dark. It is most successful at making us feel unsafe in our own home – domesticated spaces full of day-to-day possessions become quite alien in the dark, as potential threats lurk in the dark corners of every room. Relying heavily on sound effects that signal the onset of the titular activity, the film becomes immensely disturbing as rumbling groans, thumping footsteps, rasped whispers and unidentified thuds emanate from the speakers. When we do see something occurring it is realistic and subtle – and all the more powerful for it. Even this horror-hardened writer felt distinctly uneasy and very pleasantly surprised throughout.

In the grand tradition of ‘psychological horror’ as evidenced in the likes of The Shining and The Blair Witch Project, an overwhelming sense of dread begins to build up and seep out of every frame as the story picks up the pace and eventually hurtles towards its dark denouement. Films such as these prove most effective because a little of the dread and foreboding stays with you after the credits roll. By the time you leave the cinema and get home, this dread may have increased somewhat, as images and moments from the film still flicker inside your mind and worm their way into the familiar surroundings of your home, tainting the domestic sanctuary. Putting the light out before you go to sleep may prove a little more difficult later still, as that certain dreadful ‘something’ still niggles at your insides and plays tricks with your mind.

Peli knows the success of a good scare is all about waiting for the inevitable and the tension that mounts from that. Not a drop of blood is spilled throughout the film; instead the audience are treated to a slow-burning, suggestive, highly atmospheric horror tale in the tradition of the likes of Val Lewton and MR James, filtered through Blair Witch sensibilities. It proves so effective because it is so subtle and creepy. Gone are the now familiar rapid cuts and frenzied over-editing used in contemporary horror that completely eviscerates any tension that was evident to begin with. What we have here, quite often – particularly the effective shots of the couple in bed - are long static takes prompting us to gaze into the dark abyss of the screen for the smallest flickers of movement in the corners of the frame, the vaguest hint of threat. Before we know it, the abyss is starring back. Of course, because we are viewing Micah’s video ‘footage’, other events are captured with handheld urgency – for the most part though, he puts his camera to where we want it to be…

Like The Blair Witch Project before it, this film may prove more effective when watched in the comfort and safety of one’s own home. Even so, it is wonderful to see a film with such humble origins become such a success at the box office and give generic, heartless and corporate-peddled trash like Saw VI a run for its money.

Arguably something that has been done before, Paranormal Activity is nonetheless a taut and chilling film, expertly crafted to wring tension and dread from almost every moment.

Reviewed on: 16 Nov 2009
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A couple's new home turns into a nightmare.
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Director: Oren Peli

Writer: Oren Peli

Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs, Ashley Palmer, Amber Armstrong, Randy McDowell, Tim Piper, Crystal Cartwright

Year: 2007

Runtime: 86 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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