We badly wanted to see horror indy Paranormal Activity before the expected backlash had time to take effect, though we did hear from lots of interwebz folks that that the film was unworthy of the massive hype machine put in place by Paramount (who picked up the $10K budgeted flick after some positive festival appearances over the last 2 years.) The Blair Witch Project introduced audiences to the 'found footage' concept nearly a decade ago (in short, footage consisting of the film/video footage shot by the characters themselves) even though Ruggero Deodato's infamous exploitation gem, Cannibal Holocaust, had used the technique rather brilliantly back in 1980 (though there was a narrative framework surrounding the use of the footage.) We were lucky to have seen BWP in its opening weekend – too early for it to become hip to hate the film – and marveled at how directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez stayed true to the '3 kids with cameras' framework and made it feel real enough to send genuine chills down our spine when the characters on screen were sure that they heard something out there. It was years before thinking back on the film's much parodied final shot lost the power to utterly spook us out. Only the Spanish REC managed to improve on the method, by taking the cameras out of the hands of inexperienced kids and into the hands a professional camera crew working for a Barcelona news station following a reporter as she films a fluff piece on a local fire department, where a routine call to an apartment building turns into the requisite night of terror. REC is an extremely polished, professional bit of filmmaking, with the presence of a professional cameraman and equipment allowing for a less nausea-inducing theater experience (and probably also holds true for its Hollywood remake, Quarantine.)
Paramount's unusual ad campaign for Paranormal Activity has focused on the terrified reaction shots of preview audiences rather than film footage itself, almost as if the studio is bashful about the film being called out as a BWP knock-off. But having finally seen the film as part of Lincoln Center's Scary Movies 3 festival , I can attest to the veracity of all those jumps, gasps, and screams (okay, we didn't actually scream – honest.) Leaving the theater, we were trying to remember the last time that genuine fear had been felt inside a movie theater, aside from the feeling that car keys had been lost at the New Roc City multiplex. Paranormal Activity centers around the videotaped nocturnal activity of a spirit that Katie (Katie Featherston) feels is invading the modern San Diego home she shares with boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat.) Micah's attitude is far more blasé, assuming that the culprit ultimately responsible for the noises in the night will turn out to be a neighborhood peeping tom rather than anything supernatural. Micah does most of the filming, playfully taping Katie as they cook meals and lay about on their couch, but also sets the camera up on their bedroom dresser when they go to bed, affording a view of the bedroom and the upstairs hallway through the open door. Time coded footage allows us to hear the odd creak and rattle – most of which happens in the middle of the night and go unnoticed until they play the footage back the next night – which quickly turns to loud bangs and door slamming. They enlist the aid of a psychic (Mark Fredrichs) who explains the difference between the spirit of a dead human being and a demon, the latter of which he suspects may well have followed Katie from childhood. Soon, even Micah becomes a believer, even to the point of bringing home a Ouija board to communicate with it – something the psychic explicitly warned them against. Attempts to communicate, he says, will only make their presence stronger (it also won't help to move or go to a hotel as the entity will simply follow Katie.)
This isn't a film that depends all that much on plot twists and turns, but it would be criminal to spoil any of what transpires during the tenser haunting sequences. Director Oren Peli has spent two nervous years dueling with a studio that first wanted merely to buy the rights to the film and remake it with big stars and effects to match (an act that would have shown such hysterically poor judgment we almost whished that they had gone ahead so that Paranormal Activity starring Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale would be appearing on Blu-Ray just about now) only to relent once Steven Spielberg – among others – had seen the film and spotted its potential. Nevertheless, Paramount sat on the film for what must have seemed like an eternity to Peli (particularly after the red hot reception which greeted the film at almost every festival it played at.) Peli expertly exploits the terror of lying in your bed in the middle of the night, having been awakened by mysterious noises and too petrified to leave the sheets to investigate the darkness. The usual 'cat jumps through open window' to the strain of a screeching musical cue type of scare is largely absent from the film, giving it an unusual rhythm that slowly but surely fills the viewer with an sense of escalating dread; once Peli and the actors convince us of the reality of the setup (within 10 minutes we stopped thinking things like "Oh, please, why would he be filming now") even the smallest shadow or unexplained noise had the power to turn our blood frigid. Now, we can't say that this psychology will work on everyone and we can hear the complaints that it was boring and that "nothing happened". Effects in the film are smartly limited (though we have strong suspicions where the studio mandated reshoots began at the film's conclusion) and most of the what occurs is left to the imagination of the viewer.
Paranormal Activity frightened us in a way we haven't felt for years in a theater; a window into the deep, spine-chilling creepiness that sneaks into our bedrooms in the middle of the night, taking our knowledge that the supernatural doesn't actually exist and throwing it out the window.