Paranormal Activity *** ½
Directed By: Oren Peli.
Written By: Oren Peli.
Starring: Katie Featherston (Katie), Micah Sloat (Micah), Mark Fredrichs (The Psychic).
I am not really scared by too many horror movies. Part of it is because I see so many horror films that I am now accustomed to all the old scare tactics used by filmmakers, and can see what is going to happen a mile away. Horror movies depend on surprise, suspense and fear of the unknown, but when you can tell what is going to happen in every scene before you even sit in a theater, then it becomes rather boring. I still love horror movies, but even some of the very best ones no longer really scare me. I am more interested in what the films are about, what they are doing with the genre, rather than being wrapped up in being horrified. Yet, I have to admit, Paranormal Activity scared me. It had me literally perched on the edge of my seat (that old tired cliché, is a cliché for a reason) for much of its running time, terrified about what was going to happen next. That they seemingly made the movie with almost no money, and no special effects is further proof that bigger is not always better.
I do not want to discuss too much of the plot of the movie, because that would ruin the experience I think. Personally, all I needed to know was that some people were calling this the scariest movie of the year, and it had me interested, so I studiously avoided reviews of any kind. So if you’re like me, you may want to stop reading here, and come back after you’ve seen the movie, assured of the fact that the film lives up to the hype.
The entire movie is shot on a video camera by Micah (Micah Sloat), a day trader who has just moved into to a new house in San Diego with his student girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston). Katie is convinced that there is some sort of paranormal presence in their house. She has experienced this on and off since childhood, but things seem to be getting worse. Micah, like any man, wants to play with his new toy – the video camera – to capture everything that is happening, so if anything is happening, he can solve it. Like a man too proud to ask for directions, Micah is too proud to admit there are things going on that he cannot control. Katie is his girlfriend, and this is his house damn it, and he’s going to solve the problem. At Katie’s insistence, they call a physic, but he is no help. He can tell right away that what is haunting them is not a ghost but a demon, and he doesn’t “do” demons. He has a friend who is a “demonologist”, but alas, he is out of town for a few days. Leaving won’t help, because the demon will just follow them (a clever way for the filmmakers to keep the couple from simply going down to a motel and waiting the thing out, a question I often ask myself in movies like this).
The movie is shot like The Blair Witch Project or it’s big budget counterpart, Cloverfield, in that it is presented as “found footage” after the events have already played themselves out. To me, this movie is more effective than either of those, because it is far better shot than Blair Witch, and much better acted than Cloverfield. It is also, it must be said, strangely plausible. This is a movie in which almost half of it seems to be shot at night, with the camera mounted on a tripod at the end of the couples bed simply observing what is going on – which I will not reveal here. I will say that for long stretches of the movie, nothing appears to be happening, yet we cannot look away. The special effects in the movie are so subtle and brilliant, that they do not feel like special effects at all. The performances feel like real people, not actors reciting their lines. Katie Featherston in particular is brilliant, as she is in nearly every shot in the movie, and yet we never once catch her acting. In its own way, this is one of the best performances of the year.
Like all good horror movies, Paranormal Activity saves its biggest scare for the final scene – and without describing it in anyway, I will say that it’s a doozy. There are certainly moments of fear and terror throughout the movie, but the finale is brilliant. In the days since, I have not been able to get that final shot out of my head. This is the year’s best horror film.