A “Paranormal” Production
Following the “Blair Witch Project’s” fake documentary scheme, “Paranormal Activity” makes the most out of subtle, yet ingenious, scares.
Originally shot and released in 2007 and screened at the Slamdance Film Festival, the film was picked up by Paramount Pictures. The studio initially wanted it to be remade into a flashier Hollywood picture, replete with CGI-effects and tons of “jump-scares.” Thankfully, the Powers That Be decided against the changes, and released this already-polished gem.
Director Oren Peli manages to bring a fresh sense of horror to the cinema with his little movie-that-could. As Peli explained in the movie’s press release, his aim was to scare people where they were most comfortable.
“I figured, well, sleeping at home is something you can’t really avoid. So if I can make people scared of being at home, ‘Paranormal Activity’ might do something,” said Peli.
The movie takes place in a typical suburban neighborhood in San Diego – as normal as it gets. It follows the experiences of a couple, Katie and Micah (stunning newcomers Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat), as they try to document the supernatural happenings inside of their house.
What happens is explored in a manner of such refreshing subtlety and genuine fear that one cannot help but forget that this is a movie. The escalation of these ghostly encounters is so realistic, paralleled by the deterioration of Katie and Micah, that everything seems plausible at that moment.
The film’s structure is set up in an ingenious manner, split between the presumed-to-be-safe daytime and the horrifying nighttime. There are title cards for each night, placed in front of the characters sleeping in their beds. This becomes such a trope in the movie, that the audience becomes apprehensive just when the words “Night #17” appear, like curtains opening before a show.
Following that is the superb sound design of “Paranormal Activity;” there’s a subtle growling throughout, which becomes an aural undercurrent of anticipation. Not since “The Blair Witch Project” has a horror movie made use of the audience’s imagination so well.
Instead of devolving into some sort of cheap “Ghost Hunters” episode, “Paranormal Activity” wants the audience to anticipate the fear and then revel in it when it happens. This is achieved by its creepy sounds, low-budget but effective special effects and novel fast-forwarding of film. These combine to create a Pavlovian call-and-response routine, which is the most successful part of this film.
The plot is hazy and some parts do not really make sense, or seem superfluous at best, but “Paranormal Activity” does not need it. What is central to this movie is the idea that these supernatural occurrences are happening to a normal, everyday couple. They do not understand what is happening, and neither do you.
The surprising smattering of humor is also integral to the movie. Humor is what gets the audience to identify with the characters. All too often, horror movies forget to make their characters believable people. Micah and Katie avoid becoming “Guy #1” and “Girl #2” because Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat infuse such personality into their characters, which further adds to the movie’s believability.
This humor disappears as events escalate, but by then it’s so scary, that comedy would be jarring. As every night passes, the audience grows quieter and quieter in restless anticipation.
The second half is definitely the better half, which was changed by Steven Spielberg’s suggestion; in a film that resists many Hollywood conventions, the end does not. Watch the original ending on YouTube, and you can be the judge.
One of the unique marketing decisions of “Paranormal Activity” was distributor Paramount Pictures‘ refusal to release this on a bigger market unless 1,000,000 people across the U.S. “demanded it.” They determined the demand by using a website which allowed people to register and click a button to “demand” the movie be shown in their area. Before long, over 1,000,000 did just that, and “Paranormal Activity” was rolled out to many theaters.
None of that effort went to waste. “Paranormal Activity” is something to be seen. You should see it – not just to be scared, but to see how subtlety is still an effective tool in cinema. You might even feel that you can never go to bed safe again.