Horror is probably the film genre where it is most possible to get by on a small budget, and Paranormal Activity exemplifies that extremely well. Much like The Blair Witch Project did a decade ago, this little film came from seemingly nowhere and favors a “it could be real” approach over big budget ghostly effects. With a cast of four, a single location, and handheld camera work, this film became the buzz of the Halloween season. But is it truly a step above other low budget scare flicks or did it simply have excellent timing in the release? The truth falls somewhere in the middle.
Paranormal Activity is told completely from the home camera of Micah (Micah Sloat). Micah has recently moved in with his girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston) which has resulted in minor paranormal phenomenon in the house. Katie says that it’s something that’s been happening to her to varying degrees for her entire life. Micah decides to try to capture some of the events on film (thus the camera that is recording the entire film). While Micah just seems to be interested in catching something “creepy” on film, Katie takes all of this much more seriously. At one point she even consults a psychic (Mark Fredrichs of Wristcutters: A Love Story) to try and get these events to stop. While the events unnerve Katie, nothing more severe than a few bumps or objects moving seems to be happening. But Micah’s determination to provoke a greater reaction seems to be escalating the events and angering whatever is haunting Katie. As the phenomenon, that the psychic concludes is likely a demon, builds in strength, the pair start to wonder what if anything they can do to make it go away.
Paranormal Activity is the brainchild of first-time writer-director Oren Peli who shot the film in his own house. Peli has reportedly always had a fear of ghosts and channeled that fear of the supernatural into the film. Most of the events that take place are low key enough that they could believable as having really happened. Much like The Blair Witch Project there was a story outline but no actual scripted dialogue. All of the words between Micah and Katie were thought of and created by the actors. The two have a very natural rapport that helps most of the dialogue be very natural. However when things get a little more expository (such as when Micah is talking to Katie about a demonic haunting he looked up online) it doesn’t flow quite as well and feels a bit like a mediocre improv exercise. These moments are few but fail to maintain the realism that the film strives for and maintains for most of the runtime. Of course with a title like Paranormal Activity it’s not all talk, and some strange things do actually happen. And when they do those individual scenes are built extremely well and hold a great deal of tension as the audience waits to see what will happen. However some of that tension gets lost in follow up scenes where Katie and Micah just talk about what happened. When the unusual events are actually happening, the film is undoubtedly at it’s peak.
It is worth addressing the handheld camera work of Paranormal Activity and it’s possible impact on some viewers. The camera work is jittery enough to cause motion sickness to those suseptible to such things. Thankfully though the shakiness is not as extreme The Blair Witch Project or 2008’s Cloverfield owing to the fact that the characters holding the camera aren’t ever running around with it. However at the same time to add to the authentic feel of the film the camera is being handled by actors and not trained camera operators. On this particular issue the big saving grace is that there are regular segments where the camera is completely stationary. This is usually when the night footage that the couple shoot of themselves while sleeping is used, but there are also times when the camera is put down on a table or counter which brings a welcome break for the shakiness. For the purposes of the story, the handheld camera work is fully justified but it may still cause nausea in some viewers so consider this a fair warning.
Ultimately while there are some great moments in Paranormal Activity (almost all of them during the night vision footage of the couple sleeping) the time between them sags somewhat. While it is admirable that a feature length film can be made and ultimately work on such a miniscule budget (the original production costs have been reported at $15,000) the overall effect probably would have worked better as a 40 minute short. Or at the very least maybe had a few more paranormal events occur so that the less interesting stretches between wouldn’t be as long. The parts of the film that take place between actual supernatural events aren’t really bad but they do little to elevate the tension and at times just feel like padding. Much of it seems to just keep reestablishing what a selfish jerk Micah is, something that has a purpose in the story but is also firmly established within the first 20 minutes. There are some truly scary moments, especially towards the end (the last 20 minutes are very strong). However in many ways it’s a 90 minute build up for one big scare at the end. So while it ends well, the journey there drags somewhat along the way.
Final Score: 3 out of 5