Made for only $11,000 and filmed at writer/producer/director Oren Peli’s own house in just seven days, Paranormal Activity was the sleeper hit of last year, a low budget, indie horror flick that went on to earn more than $100 million at the US box office alone.
I’d heard hugely differing opinions about the movie from friends and critics and critics alike. It seems to divide people into those who loved it, and those who thought it was incredibly overrated. “Nothing happens,” they grumble. Fair enough, if you prefer your horror movie experience served up at lightening pace in a thick coating of blood and gore, this may not be the movie for you.
I love horror movies of all flavours, good and bad. However, I’ll admit I disliked both Cloverfield and Blair Witch Project for reasons too numerous to list here. I mention it because, like Paranormal Activity, these two shaky-cam pioneers had also been subject to huge amounts of hype, and as such I was a little cynical about the movie’s horror chops.
So I was surprised to find the film to be genuinely frightening. Admittedly, I had perhaps watched one too many episodes of Ghost Hunters on Livingit before settling down with the DVD. But I found the film created, and then relentlessly escalated, a satisfying sense of anticipation and anxiety throughout.
Yes, the story is an incredibly simple one. A young couple living in San Diego, Milo and Katie are troubled at night time by what they believe to be paranormal phenomena. The film focuses on their efforts to, firstly, capture the presence on camera, and then their reactions as they realise they are under threat of harm from the demonic being. The audience is invited to put themselves in this unassuming couple’s shoes, with everything playing out via Milo’s camcorder.
Like Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity incorporates verisimilitude, implying the film’s events are based on a true story, while the actors also retain their real names.
The key to how effective this movie is really lies in this simplicity. It’s left up to the viewer to scrutinise every dark corner, or strain to hear the slightest noise in an effort to detect ghostly goings-on. We only see what the main characters see, through Milo’s treasured camcorder and off-screen noises.
As the movie progresses, Peli adeptly increases the pressure, ramping up both the anticipation and dread at what will happen next to the ill-fated couple. A period of inactivity or silence only adds to the expectation that some really bad stuff is about to happen.
That’s not to say the film is that different from mainstream horror in some ways. Milo plays the role of the ‘idiot boyfriend’. His quest to assert himself as the alpha male, and his ensuing pissing competition with a demonic presence, inevitably puts the couple in danger. Katie knows he shouldn’t mess with a Ouija board. The audience knows it. The physic who pays an all but fleeting visit to the house knows it. So what does he do? Yep, you guessed it. It’s the equivalent of going into the cellar to investigate a strange noise.
Also, it’s frustrating that they try to deal with the demonic pest problem by themselves. Call someone – a priest, a demonologist, hell, even the Ghost Hunters would have a crack at it – but don’t think that a session on the Internet, some talcum powder and a camcorder is anything but a fun night in. It certainly is not a way to do away with one of Lucifer’s minions.
That being said, this film got my heart racing and my mind working overtime. The fact that we never see the demonic being only makes it ten times scarier for the audience. This film is as scary as your imagination makes it.
Paranormal Activity is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.