Paranormal Activity knows how to scare the viewer. Director Oren Peli knows that it's not about effects, big budgets or movie stars. Good horror films are about one thing--unsettling the audience by any means necessary.
For Peli, the best way to scare us is to let us do the work. Paranormal Activity doesn't show us much, but when it does, our minds have created all we need to let the Goosebumps and the rapid heartbeat set in.
It's been 10 years since The Blair Witch Project came out, and Paranormal Activity is the The Blair Witch Project of 2009. The pair has a long list of similarities: they are horror films based around simple, similar ideas (dangerous woods vs. dangerous house); both are extremely low-tech and were made on the cheap (Paranormal Activity cost a whopping $15,000 to make); both generated lots of word-of-mouth appeal; both raked in at the box office. Most importantly, both are unique, good movies.
The film takes place throughout a series of weeks in a non-descript house in San Diego.
We are told that what we see is footage recorded by the couple who live in the house, Micah and Katie. Strange things have been happening to Katie. She's been haunted and tormented since she was eight years old by an unexplainable force that is more demon than ghost. It doesn't matter where she's lived, the entity follows her.
Micah buys a video camera with the hope of capturing some of the abnormal behavior that occurs to Katie during the night as she sleeps.
During the day, he records them eating, flirting and just hanging out. When the lights go off, however, the camera stays on. Let the freakiness begin.
At first, innocent things happen such as keys being moved. But with each passing night, events intensify and by the end, the dread has escalated and a feeling of unending doom pervades the house. Surviving until morning is all Micah and Katie want when they go to sleep.
Paranormal Activity works as a horror film because it lets the viewer use the most important element in being frightened: imagination. What you don't see, or the waiting expectation for something to happen, is often more frightening than what you end up seeing on the screen.
Is there a more terrifying childhood memory than the time spent in a dark house or in its dank basement? How scary is it being in the woods alone, surrounded by the complete unknown of night? The imagination takes over and soon all kinds of petrifying images are conjured up.
It's all in your mind.
Horror films are a genre that has long depended on the viewer to create their own terror. Whether its classic horror like Rosemary's Baby, Jaws, The Thing or Poltergeist, all of those films involve our imagination turned against us as we watch. Using things such as extreme or off-kilter camera angles to foster uneasiness, noises off-screen or the hidden unseen to threaten us are all strategies used in good horror films for decades. When done with skill and creativity, these aids work and our imagination falls prey to such tactics almost every time.
Paranormal Activity seems kind of old-fashioned in this world of Saw and its ilk of brutal horror releases. Those films want to beat you into submission with their lack of subtlety, while Paranormal Activity invites the viewer inside its web created without the aid of gore, CGI or very little razzle dazzle with technology.
Simplicity is its strong suit and I much prefer the path it takes over the unrelenting horror films that are popular and swarming the multiplex.
The film successfully pulls us into the character's fear by depending on two key technical strategies: P.O.V. (point of view) shots and the use of a stationary camera at night.
POV shots into a dark room are devastatingly effective in upping the tension as the viewer knows as little as the character in the film in terms of what is going on. The viewer discovers when the character discovers. Not before, not after--at the same time.
The night scenes feel web-cam voyeuristic and almost every key moment in the film takes place via this unmoving camera at night. These two things pull us into the onscreen paranoia while creating an intimate bond between character and viewer as we witness the same things at the same time.
Paranormal Activity is a pleasant surprise. It boasts more genuinely spooky and chill-inducing scenes than any horror film in recent years--unless you prefer the aforementioned blunt, hit-you-over-the-head style of horror. It has a raw simplicity to it that can't help but ensnare in its world. The most effective thing that Paranormal Activity does is use the best weapon any filmmaker can unleash upon us--ourselves.
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