Paranormal Activity showed up around last Halloween, the latest in the on-again off-again trend of extremely low-budget “found footage” horror films. The idea goes back at least as far as Cannibal Holocaust, the infamous Italian horror film which purports to be edited from cans of footage recovered after an anthropological expedition to Latin America that runs afoul of cannibals. The film was so shocking and effective that the director was forced to produce the actors to prove that he didn’t actually kill them on camera. The basic idea of the found documents of a deceased narrator goes back further, at least to the pulp era, if not further-Lovecraft was a big fan of the format, and several radio shows used it to great effect (the all time champion in that format being the Lights Out! episode The Dark).
Of course, in recent memory, the film most connected to the technique is The Blair Witch project, which created quite a stir in the summer of 1999, in no small part because it’s brilliant early web-based marketing campaign convinced many viewers that what they were seeing was real. The Blair Witch Project, though largely brought up in a derisive context these days, successfully captured the imagination of the American public, resulting in a slew of spoofs, rip-offs, and interviews with cast members, not to mention extremely healthy business. More recently films like Cloverfield and REC gained some serious buzz and box office/DVD sales, though not quite hitting the hype of The Blair Witch (of course one was a relatively big budget Kaiju film, and the other is Spanish and confined to a DVD release/American remake in States).
Paranormal Activity stood out in the field of latter-day “Found Footage” horror films because, like The Blair Witch it was made for next to nothing ($15,000 is one figure bandied about) by a group of unknowns before being picked up by Paramount for distribution (and touched up slightly with some additional footage, re-editing, and sound and digital effects). Both films did not use a script, the actors go by their real names, each gained reputations as truly terrifying and were huge hits, especially considering how little it cost to make. The similarities mostly end there. For while The Blair Witch draws on urban legends and camp fire tales about bad people and things living out in the woods, Paranormal Activity answers the question: what if all these pop culture “ghost hunting” reality shows and books by people like the Warrens were real? What if the victims of such an event filmed it?
Katie and Micah are a young couple who recently moved in together. Katie is unusual in at least one way, however-for her whole life she’s been haunted by something-a force, a ghost, or perhaps a demon. Micah is highly interested in this, so against Katie’s, Katie’s friend’s and eventually a psychic’s advice, Micah not only films them sleeping every night, he calls out taunts, lays out a Ouija board and does everything he can to provoke whatever it is. He succeeds, the encounters beginning with simple footsteps and noises and moving up to full-fledged door slamming apparitions and temporary possessions of Katie. Katie and Micah call for help from the demonologist that the psychic recommended-but is it already too late?
There isn’t much more to Paranormal Activity, plot wise, though there is some interesting subtext that may or may not be intentional. Micah and Katie’s relationship is rather unequal and unpleasant, with Micah putting his obsession to be right and/or to find “proof” of what’s going on over Katie’s feelings on the subject-and common sense. Even when things start to get really, really bad, Micah continues to do idiotic things, like yell at the entity. On the one hand, the film does manage to offer some reason to the age-old question of horror films: “Why don’t they just run away”-the answer is, they can’t, because the haunting is centered on Katie, not on a dwelling or location, but on the other hand Micah continues to do things that seem unwise long after solid evidence of the entity presents itself-especially since everyone warns the couple about interacting with the phenomena. One hopes that the director intended the relationship to be dysfunctional, as up until the last act I found it more disturbing than the haunting elements, which build a bit too slowly and are of mixed effectiveness. What works is very unsettling, and there are a few good jump scares, but the couple is hard to root for in their co-decency, and the pace is too slow. The film is good enough, though, that with a game crowd I suspect it would be a lot of fun, and it’s one of the better “found footage” horror films, which all suffer from the needs of the storytelling device, causing the audience to question at times why the camera is still on and suffer through too many scenes of “unscripted” dialogue.
As someone who did engage in that age-old ritual of teenage initiation, the expedition to a “haunted place”, in the woods no less, I found more to identify with in The Blair Witch Project‘s college students than with Paranormal Activity‘s demon/entity haunted couple, who really should know better than to taunt it. The kids in Project are simply in over their heads, and don’t do anything to bring about their fate, where as Micah brings his down on them every step of the way. There’s also the fact that in Witch, the film students don’t really know each other; their mistakes and bickering come from this. With Micah and Katie you just want to tell her to get out of this abusive relationship-it’s an interesting path to take, but it does not make for engaging characters. Paranormal Activity leaves the viewers with an unsettled feeling, so it is not without merit, just not the great horror film the hype would have it be.