A few years ago, I wrote a screenplay that was, at its core, very similar to “Paranormal Activity”. Seriously. It followed a couple who lived in a haunted house, where things would only happen to them at night. Then, during the day, they would go through the monotony of their every day lives, until nighttime would come again. Even the way the hauntings were constructed very similarly, with barely noticeable sounds the first night, leading up to nerve-jangling noises, bangs, and footsteps. The whole movie was event to take place entirely in one apartment, to cut back on the need for added locations.
I mention this not to insinuate that “Paranormal Activity” has stolen my idea. After all, it’s essentially the most basic idea in the horror movie universe. I merely mention it because I know of the difficulties in making such a film simultaneously believable and scary. After all, it’s not easy to find ways to keep a severely distressed couple in the same house for a month, or find ways for them to avoid getting help. And in my attempt to have some sort of character development, I added far too many daytime scenes that took the momentum from the previous night’s hauntings.
Oddly, these are the main things that haunt “Paranormal Activity”, a film that’s widely being touted as the scariest movie of the year, if not of all time. While I find the latter to be a little far-fetched, I simply must agree with the former statement: Not necessarily because I want to, but because it has to win by default. What else has hit theaters this year with even half the chills and thrills? Hell, what has hit theaters, or even gone direct-to-video, with even half this many scares in the past DECADE? Sadly, there haven’t been many, with Hollywood’s commitment to an endless barrage of half-assed remakes, not to mention the obvious “quantity over quality” mantra they have lived by over the years.
Katie and Micah are a couple that have recently moved in to a new home. Katie seems to think that there is something in the house, a ghost perhaps, that haunts them while they sleep. So in order to either prove or dispel that theory, Micah purchases a nice HD camera, adds some good sound gear to go with it, and attaches this all to his laptop (for review every morning). Micah then mounts the camera to a tripod in the far corner of the room, and records the room, as they try to sleep, the entire night.
Thankfully, the nighttime scenes, which are what everyone is going to see the movie for in the first place, take up a good portion of the film’s 90-minute runtime, because the daytime scenes become rather boring and monotonous after a little while. At first, it’s just little segments of Katie and Micah’s normal every day lives (apparently, neither of them work) as shown through the lens of Micah’s new toy. But then as the frequency and hostility of the hauntings gradually rise, the daytime scenes then become little more than constant arguments between Katie and Micah as to why he refuses to get rid of his camcorder, which Katie believes is the main cause of the spirit (or demon’s) apparent increase in anger, or why Micah refuses to call a demonologist to have him assess the situation. I guess these scenes are supposed to add to the panic and paranoia of the characters, but I thought it just mainly distracted from the hauntings at hand–to be honest, I found myself wishing for it to be nighttime again in more than a few cases.
But adding to the film’s charm is the fact it was made for a paltry $15,000 by Oren Pali, an Israeli immigrant who had no formal film training. What he pulls off for the budget, and with limited film knowledge, is certainly something to be proud of. While a majority of the early scares are rather simple to pull off (a door slamming shut, a light turning on), some of the later ones are much more complex, and pulled off with shocking believability. In fact, the final half-hour is the only time I really felt more than just a slight aura of dread, or some slight chills; it’s an almost non-stop parade of terror, with excellent sound effects and some truly effective shock scares. The finale, which many have labeled a “buzzkill”, I found to be a satisfying conclusion, even if it does seem like it was ripped directly out of a Japanese horror film.
For a hardened horror veteran like myself, “Paranormal Activity” falls well short of its “scariest movie of all time” hype, simply because it takes so long to get going. While a majority of the theater (my wife included) was terrified the first time a light turned on all by itself, I need something a bit more to truly scare me. The fact that a good bit of the film’s scariest scenes, including the ending, are shown in the trailer was also a bit of a letdown. In fact, I was able to foresee the ending, which otherwise would have been a total shock, a few seconds before it happened, simply because I made the mistake of viewing the trailer (though I must give a little credit and say a couple sequences in the trailer did not appear in the movie at all).
Also off-putting was the assurance that this film is “a true story” is also incredibly forced. Didn’t that idea die once “The Blair Witch Project” was released? Does anyone truly believe that this is made up of real footage? I find the attempt almost laughable. I should also note that the film strives to lessen the impact of the scares with comedy, something that I can’t stand in otherwise serious horror flicks. While I can see this in horror-comedies, horror films that make no attempt to take themselves seriously, this is one that is clearly trying to scare the wits out of the viewer. Thus, all the repeated attempts at comedy succeed in doing is undoing some of the tension and the scares that the movie had going for it in the first place.
For its budget, however, “Paranormal Activity” is certainly a solid little shocker. If you happen to be near one of the thirteen cities it’s currently playing at nationwide, I urge you to check it out–you could definitely do far worse, especially if you go in knowing as little about the film as possible. It’s the scariest movie of the year, and perhaps even the decade, though unfortunately that’s not so much a testament of its ability to scare, as it is a lack of solid competition.