An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · September 24, 2009, 8:29 PM EDT
Paranormal Activity

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on September 24, 2009, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Although it belongs to the same school of through-the-camcorder-lens horror as The Blair Witch Project and its imitators/successors, Paranormal Activity adopts a notably different aesthetic. Rather than a series of shaky visuals reflecting the panicked point of view of the characters, its key moments are seen through the static, unblinking eye of an unmoving camera—which, if nothing else, will be a relief to those who got motion sickness from Blair Witch or Cloverfield.

Many fans are no doubt simply sick of the wait they’ve had to endure between Paranormal Activity’s attention-grabbing screening at the Slamdance Film Festival in January 2008 and its commercial debut this weekend as a midnight-movie attraction. The movie, once (pointlessly) destined for the more-expensive-remake treatment, has been slightly re-edited for the current release, with a new ending added; I haven’t seen the original version, but judging from what I’ve been told of its conclusion, the new one is less cluttered with unnecessary side characters and more of a piece with the approach of the rest of the film. It also features a pair of moments guaranteed to levitate you out of your seat.

Directed by Oren Peli and presented without credits other than those establishing it as a video case file, Paranormal Activity literally focuses on Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) as they document on tape the strange events that have begun to plague them by night. Katie has come to believe that there’s an unpleasant presence in their house; Micah isn’t convinced, and frankly, he’s a bit of a jerk about it. Nonetheless, they set up their camcorder to watch over them while they sleep, and the long, unbroken takes of the couple in their bed and the surrounding room are the meat of the movie.

Most modern vérité horror films use the form to plug you directly into the frightened psyches of their protagonists, suddenly glimpsing and attempting to flee from the ghosts/monsters/psychos stalking them or coming upon horrific sights. Peli’s use of the objective camera turns the viewer into an increasingly anxious observer, studying the frame for a sign of, well, paranormal activity as Katie and Micah sleep. (The director frequently fast-forwards the footage to the late-late-night moments when the invisible evil makes itself known.) He knows how long to make the audience wait before springing a sudden jolt on them, and the ordinariness of the setting and situation means that he can raise hackles with the simple movement of a door or a bedsheet.

Soon there’s enough evidence that something is supernaturally wrong that the question becomes what to do about it. But the tension of their nocturnal haunting is exacerbated by a sense of helplessness as none of the potential solutions do any good. Micah’s risible decision to buy a Ouija board only ends in bad news for the board; when a psychic expert in the spirit world comes to visit, he informs them that they’re actually being plagued by a demon before beating a hasty retreat. And gradually uncovered evidence, along with recollections from Katie, reveal an especially unnerving side to her predicament.

Katie’s plight is made so relatable that it’s a shame she also has to share the house with a boor like Micah. One of the chief criticisms directed at Blair Witch etc. has been that their characters sometimes come off as obnoxious, and that’s the case where he’s concerned. It’s true that extreme circumstances don’t necessarily bring out the best in people, but Micah’s frequent callous attitude toward Katie and refusal to take the phenomena seriously, and the spats they too often indulge in, detract from the empathy level. Under the circumstances, it’s no surprise that the movie works best when he’s asleep and not talking.

Nevertheless, Paranormal Activity proves that there’s still life in the found-footage approach that has been sliding into tired cliché over the past decade. However shrill Micah’s behavior becomes, both Sloat and Featherston turn in entirely naturalistic and believable performances, which jibe perfectly with Peli’s no-frills approach. His special FX are simple, and pulled off so well that they never register as effects—and they may well make you just a little nervous when you turn out your own lights the night after you see the movie.