When I was a kid, I suffered a week of some pretty serious nightmares, bordering on the level of night terrors. My parents were baffled as to why; usually I was a pretty sound sleeper and had no problem getting to bed beyond the usual hemming and hawing of children everywhere. Later on it was discovered that I (a voracious reader taught to do so by loving parents and a steady regimen of books and fisher-price tapes) had been rummaging in my cousin's room and found a paperback novel. I'd read about a quarter of the way into the book before our visit had ended, but from that alone my mind conjured horrors that would make the 'Night on Bald Mountain' sequence from Fantasia look like the opening of The Care Bears. The book? The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson.
There's just something about a work that purports to be a true story that lowers our defenses, however slightly. As kids we don't doubt this in the least, and even sometimes knowing it's an okeydoke the fact that the material is presented to us as 'true' can snake past our cynicism and skepticism and find us in that little corner of our mind that still believes that-no matter how many times we check or how much science reassures us there isn't--monsters exist in the darkness when we turn the lights off. Monsters that will most surely grab our feet from beneath the bedsheets and yank us into the darker shadows, where there are things we cannot see with fang and claw and oh how we'll scream. . .
I'd heard some initial buzz about Paranormal Activity from the series of tubes that comprise the Internet, and having watched Jeremy Jahns' quite excellent review of the film I was most definitely intrigued to give it a try. I'd been a huge fan of The Blair Witch Project (whose television documentary lead-in Curse of the Blair Witch creeped the living hell out of me watching it one night on Space prior to seeing the actual film), as well as The Saint Francisville Experiment. There's something about the raw nature of the video footage that adds an air of reality to the creepy proceedings that take place, and even knowing that it's a story in a film you sometimes can't help but be drawn in.
Paranormal Activity purports to be the found footage of Micah(Micach Sloat), a young twenty-something in a serious relationship with his steady girlfriend Katie(Katie Featherston). Micah's bought a rather expensive new camera with night-filming capabilities and all sorts of fancy bells and whistles for the purpose of documenting some rather unique phenomena centred around Katie herself. Katie, we learn, has experienced odd events throughout her life, moments that defy a rational explanation. Micah, being a typical type-A personality go-to guy, thinks it'll be a fun project to tape some of the creepy stuff that happens around his girlfriend, perhaps even peddle it out to a television show. Katie is at best grudgingly tolerant of his desire to explore it, and initially wants a record if for no other reason than her own peace of mind, to assure herself that this is in fact happening to her. But it's one thing to actually just talk about it and another to have her boyfriend trailing her with a camera. You can see she's bemused at first, but uncomfortable.
True to form, the film starts with us getting to know Micah and Katie as just regular people, and here I think the film shines. The normalcy of the footage, the modest backdrop of the duplex apartment/housing unit they share, the tomfoolery by the pool in their modest backyard, it all works to lower the defenses that have been raised going into the film. We know this is a horror film, we know that things are going to get messed up, but even knowing the game and the formula you bond with the characters. Micah and Katie come off as actual people, people we might even know in our day to day life, and it's in the establishment of the characters as real that we find the increasing unreality of their situation all the more believable, reinforcing our suspension of disbelief for what's to come.
The couple leaves the camera on and running while they sleep, angled to look out over the bed and over their open bedroom door, with the merest hint of the hallway beyond and the main staircase. And we're rewarded watching the footage by the odd noise. A thump here, a sound that might well be a footstep there. It's creepy, but not too out of sorts. Then the door moves by itself. This to Micah is incredibly creepy stuff, and he wants to get more and more into it. Katie is getting more reluctant, and definitely doesn't want to explore it further, but Micah is confident that everything is well in hand and at the very least it'll make for some awesome footage of the ghost. That's what this is to him. Awesome footage.
Gradually, the events begin to escalate. Sounds get louder. Movement gets more pronounced. Shadows that shouldn't be are seen on the screen. The footage is grainy, seen via our looking through the camera at Micah's computer screen. This only adds to the feeling of veracity. Katie calls in a psychic to assist, and they discuss the nature of her personal haunting. The medium comes to the conclusion that Katie isn't dealing with a ghost, but a demon. Why this demon has been following her around he can't say, but he knows without doubt that this is beyond his capabilities. He provides Micah and Katie with the number of a demonologist he knows and advises them to contact him as soon as possible.
Micah, rather surprisingly, is the one reluctant to call in the demonologist and feels the psychic to be a quack. Which is intriguing in that he is the one who actively wishes to seek the ghost/demon out and document it's presence in their home. Katie advocates calling in the expert as soon as possible but Micah believes that they can handle it themselves. He buys a book of demonlogy and (in the tradition of all obstinate people everywhere) treats the issue as less of an active threat and more of a problem to be solved. He even gets a Ouija board, wanting to talk to the 'demon' and get a dialogue going with the creature. Katie flat out tells him not to buy one, making him swear not to do so, which Micah grudgingly accepts. Of course, he ends up borrowing one (nothing like that 'letter of the law' in relationships huh?) and attempts to get the demon talking. He continues to treat the manifestations as a problem, a diversion, an issue that he can deal with rationally and resolve all on his own.
Yeah, big mistake.
Things only get worse, and eventually the manifestations go from mischievous to threatening to outright physically harmful. The psychic is called in again after the demonologist is found to be out of town (they waited too late to contact him) and he can barely even make it through the door from all the Bad Vibes pressing in on him, actually fleeing the house. The film crescendos in it's creepiness in an ending that. . .all right, let me recreate the scene for you.
INTERIOR STACY'S APARTMENT, LIVING ROOM, NIGHT. THE ROOM IS DARK AS STACY AND HIS BROTHER RYAN WATCH PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.
STACY(nervously, watching the finale): Uh, think I'll just duck into the kitchen for some more pop. . .(starts to rise, backpeddaling for the kitchen)
RYAN(reaches up, holding a two-litre bottle of diet pepsi in hand, nonchalant): Pop's right here.
STACY(freezes, voice hitching in fear): Oh you bastard. . .
Yeah. I was a little child. Four, five years old. Sailor suit optional.
While others have argued that this film is another case of Nothing Much Happening, I call that into question. To me Paranormal Activity starts you out in a very normal and friendly place: a couple's home. It's here that we see the comfort of a home be violated and ultimately destroyed, to the point where we're freaked out by the seemingly innocuous apartment all the time. This film got past my internal deflector screens and made me as nervous about my own bedroom as the patrons of Jaws must've been about the beach. The fact that the eponymous activity of the film is centered around Katie rather than the home neatly nips the usual 'well why don't they just leave the damned house' argument right in the bud. Writer/Director Oren Peli reminds you of all the reasons you used to fear the dark with a realisitc style that totally sets you up for the outlandish suckerpunches to come. The tension mounts impressively and steadily, accomplishing far more with a bang and a thump than a million Michael Bay produced remakes can with all the snap cuts and expensive CGI gore available. The characters, their situation, and the gradual breakdown of both into absolute disaster feels absolutely real, and had me suspending my disbelief all too easily.
The only gratingly false note I found in the picture was in the character of Micah. The guy knows what's happening, he knows it's getting worse, yet instead of going for help or doing anything actually useful he instead treats the demon first as a novelty, like poking at a surly house cat, then eventually as an abusive ex-boyfriend of Katie's calling it out as if--what--he's going to kick the crap out of it like Swayze with punks in Road House? But for this film to reach it's climax the occasional idiot move must be made and if the deus ex machina is heard revving from time to time it's quickly drowned out by the sudden yells and overall paranoid murmurings of myself and my brother. Definitely see this one with a friend, and see it with the lights off. Recommended.