This October, we’re celebrating some of the best horror films ever made. Look out for a new classic review daily across the month on The Film Blog, as well as more special treats along the way!
Day fourteen finds the supernatural in suburbia. It’s Paranormal Activity…
Less is more in Paranormal Activity, Oren Peli’s domestic spine-tingler about the demonic haunting of two students in San Diego. An effective entry into the found footage sub-genre, the film cost less to make than the average horror but made a whole lot more. It’s not hard to see why a ready audience loved it.
Filmed on a home video camera and within the confines of the director’s own house, Paranormal Activity benefits from a wealth of technical, cash-strapped ingenuity and restraint. Peli’s film turns the mundane into the monstrous and allows a door’s minor angle shift to electrocute the hairs on the back of your neck. How did they pull her from the bed? How did they move the bedding? How about the ouija board? What’s remarkable here is that the very best set pieces of the film are achieved in frozen frames, with choppy editing largely eschewed. There’s no hiding from a wide shot and it’s very easy to buy that the two leads are alone in the house.
Aside from being much cheaper – the whole thing was made for just $15,000 – Peli’s use of a cinecam and improvised script lends his film an aura of believability. The documentary effects here are less self-aware than those of The Blair Witch Project and one could easily argue that Paranormal Activity is all the more relatable as a result. Gothic clichés are out – no forest, no dusty old haunt – and suburban terrors are very much in.
A shaky cam and dodgy window insulation, however, do not a winning film make and the thing that ensures Paranormal Activity remains consistently engaging is the verisimilitude of its leading performances. With a hugely convincing degree of chemistry, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat play an eponymous young couple who are disturbed by the increasing presence of paranormal activity in their first home together. Both have true-to-life flaws and respond to the chaos around them exactly as you would expect real people might. She’s a believer, he thinks it’s all a bit of a joke – until it very much isn’t, of course.
In another rare twist for found footage cinema, the relationship between Katie and Micah is never sidelined and actually becomes more interesting as the film goes on. If you warm to their easy charms at the start, Peli quickly destabilises the twee set up by gradually teasing out just how much of a controlling jerk Micah really is. Indeed, his – structurally necessary – insistence on continually filming Katie through her traumatic experiences gradually transcends him into becoming Paranormal Activity’s only physical embodiment of cruelty. There’s no denying that Micah makes Katie’s situational infinitely worse but why does he do it? For his own amusement.
Such balances of control make up the thematic backbone of Peli’s directorial impetus. The film regularly shifts between hand-held and tripod-supported camerawork, the former emphasising the characters’ total loss of control and the latter undermining any self-asserted belief that they might be able to control their spiralling insecurity. As Katie snaps in a late scene of aggregation: ‘You are absolutely powerless’. This after we have repeatedly witnessed them vulnerably exposed in their own bed to things that go bump in the night. One distinct advantage of Peli’s use of still shots is the way the inactivity of his frames invite you to search for the impending danger.
It’s not perfect by any means and is better viewed among a skittish group than discerning horror fans. Peli pulls one or two too many toys from his bag of tricks, loses his subtle touch in the final act and struggles to justify the presence of his supporting characters. That said, you’ve got to admire his chutzpah in taking on the big guns.