When I was seventeen years old I saw a midnight screening of the The Blair Witch Project in Sarasota, Florida at a tiny indie theater downtown. After leaving the film I went home to a pitch-black, dead-silent house, terrified out of my mind. Although no doubt bolstered by my post-film living arrangements, much of the fear drawn from that film comes from the cinema verite style in which it is shot. Not only are the characters in the film, but you, the viewer are as well, acting as a part of the story by seeing the action unfold through their eyes. It is real horror, and it possesses all the elements to construct a truly terrifying story.
This is one of the many, many reasons writer/director/editor Oren Peli succeeds so admirably with his film Paranormal Activity. Completed in 2007 and rumored to possess several different endings, this film, although not flawless, is as close to perfect as you can get with a horror film. The concept of the film is simple: a young woman, Katie, has been experiencing some rather disturbing paranormal events lately – odd bumps, creepy vibes, and, strange whispers in the night -- and her boyfriend Micah sets up a camera in their living room in an attempt to record evidence of paranormal activity. Although she firmly believes that what is happening is real, he is skeptical. But the camera never lies.
The film is divided up between Micah's "active" point of view and the camera's static position in their bedroom while they sleep. You're drawn in with the basic premise and effective "home-movie" approach, and you're hooked with the slow reveal of the horrifying events that unfold over the course of three weeks. A major contributor to the overall impact of the film is being in exactly the same situation as our unfortunate couple: you have no idea what's going to happen next, nor do you know the when, but you just know something unpleasant is on the way. Since much of the film takes place in the bedroom with a singular point-of-view, you're teased endlessly by the director, who consistently amps up the tension by making each new paranormal occurrence slightly more frightening the last.
This makes the whole film a slow crescendo of fear, keeping you hooked and on the edge of your seat until the final payoff. The director plays some clever tricks, drawing your gaze to certain areas of the screen while utilizing sound and the subtlest of imagery to convey a genuine sense of fear. You stare and wait for something to happen, and even if nothing does, or if it's something slight, you can still feel the hair on your arms stand on end. The fear and tension are heightened due to a complete lack of a score to distract you, the film relying on nothing more than a mere aural drone to signify that something might happen.
Despite my incessant fawning, the film is not without its flaws. The main characters lack an air of credibility, especially when placed within the context of the hauntings. Micah's skepticism paints him as a stubborn jerk, while the couple's actions as a whole make you wonder why they just don't leave once things start to progress beyond the point of a mere nuisance. The ending, though effective, is imbued with an element that runs contrary to the overall tone of the film, shifting from wholly implied to overtly explicit. Although not a major grievance, an alternate ending is preferred to keep the film wholly grounded in atmosphere, as opposed to abject horror. Thankfully, none of these minor gripes detract from the overall impact of the film.
Paranormal Activity is minimalist horror at its finest. Made using a hand-held camera on a $15,000 budget by a man with no formal film training, this sleeper hit manages to engross you for the entirety of its 99 minute running time. With luck, the film's impact on the industry will be as large as the impact it had on me, and we can only hope Paramount does the right thing and gives the flick a wide release sometime in the near future. If you fancy yourself a horror fan, you need to see this film.