Reviewed by Debi Moore
Starring Katie F. and Micah S.
Edited by Oren Peli
Dread: (1) awful: causing fear or terror; (2) apprehension: fearful expectation or anticipation; (3) fear: be afraid or scared of; be frightened of.
While watching Paranormal Activity, dread was the one word that kept coming back to me over and over again. Every time the camera sat on its perch overlooking the lead couple’s bed, I was gripped by an agonizing feeling of foreboding that what I was about to see was going to scare the pants off of me and bring me one step closer to not being able to sleep tonight. Which is why it’s now 3:00 AM and I’m writing this review instead of resting comfortably in my own bed. I’m also pausing every few minutes to look over my shoulder in case someone — or something — might be lurking there. You are no doubt thinking, “Yeah, right. There’s no way some no-budget, no-name docu-style flick is keeping ME up at night!” Well, my friends, I beg to differ. This here is the real deal. Simply put, Paranormal Activity is the most frightening ghost story of the year. I’d bet cash money nobody can watch the entire thing without saying at least three or four times, “That’s some fucked up shit.” Or, more accurately, “That’s some seriously fucked up shit.”
So, exactly what is Paranormal Activity? To quote the film’s website: “A young couple suspects that their house is haunted by a malevolent entity. They set up video surveillance to capture evidence of what happens at night as they sleep. Their surveillance and home videos have been edited into the 99-minute feature film.” On the surface this is nothing we haven’t seen a million times before. In fact, for the first 15 or 20 minutes, I was ready to write off Paranormal Activity as just another entry in the long line of pseudo cinéma vérité rubbish we’ve been subjected to during these last several post-Blair Witch years. But then our couple, Katie and Micah, started to grow on me and editor Peli began gradually increasing the tension as each new paranormal event grew in strength over the course of their three-week ordeal, and I was hooked. All the action takes place in one location, Katie and Micah’s San Diego house, predominantly in their “haunted” bedroom. Katie is convinced the entity is authentic as she has had similar experiences at various times and in numerous places over the course of her life. Micah, on the other hand, treats it like a joke and recklessly taunts the spirit despite warnings that doing so will merely serve to increase its hostility and strength. But he does truly love Katie and is only trying to help her, no matter how misguided his efforts may turn out to be.
The chemistry between these two is remarkable, and their dialogue never seems forced or scripted. They seem as real as you and I, especially when Micah does the exact stupid things you’d expect someone in his situation with no connection to the spiritual realm to do. Katie probably shouldn’t have put up with his arrogant, macho behavior for as long as she does, but that, too, is plausible considering her fear and uncertainty as to the best course of action under such trying circumstances. Katie is onscreen for about 99% of the time and does an amazing job of carrying the film as well as the audience’s trust and confidence. Had she ever struck a false note, the whole thing would have gone up in smoke, but luckily for us, she is 100% believable and sympathetic.
Peli uses an absolute minimalist approach to evoke that feeling of dread I mentioned earlier. There is no soundtrack or special effects — the sound design, which incorporates some chilling EVP, and one single hand-held video camera alone tell the tale, often utilizing time-lapse photography with an ominous time code stamp to inform the viewer of how much time has passed. One wouldn’t think that scenes of two people sleeping could be utterly terrifying; yet, here in Peli’s hands they are. And those of when they are awakened in the middle of the night are even worse. Or should I say better? Because if you are a fan of ghost stories who has felt disappointed and short-changed by the lack of quality material in that subgenre over the past several years, then you should be as pleased with Paranormal Activity as I was. It’s a bite-your-nails, squirm-in-your-seat bonanza of spookiness with a healthy dose of holy-shit-I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened thrown in for good measure. In short, it’s effective as hell and is a prime example of how to win an audience over and keep their attention in a highly constrained, claustrophobic atmosphere in the most unpretentious way possible.
Paranormal Activity is one of those films that as soon as you’re done watching it makes you want to call up your friends to talk about. It’ll keep you glued to the screen and wondering what will happen next, particularly when that damn bedroom cam kicks on again. Although I did have an inkling as to how things might wind up for our troubled young lovers, the actual ending turned out to be even more unsettling than I could have ever imagined. But don’t take my word for it; see this one for yourselves. Something this good won’t stay undiscovered for long.
Note: This review is based on an earlier version of the film rather than the 2009 theatrical release.
4 1/2 out of 5
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