Note: This is a never-before-published review I wrote in October 2009.
“Keep it simple, stupid.” This bluntly axiomatic direction is at the heart of some of life’s biggest successes – and nowhere is that more true than Hollywood, where filmmakers often need a reminder of the folly of complexity for complexity’s sake. A decade ago the marvelously less-is-more The Blair Witch Project freaked out audiences without buckets of blood, and with a total production budget of less than the catering bills of most studio projects. But it’s been 10 years, and horror has once again come to mean wretched excess: gore galore (now in 3D, no less), souped up by the torture porn of the Saw and Hostel franchises. It’s time for another low-budget genre exercise to kick us in the teeth with its ridiculous simplicity. It’s time for Hollywood to learn the lesson that more money does not mean better quality. Frankly, it’s way past time for Paranormal Activity, a boring title for a breathtakingly satisfying movie.
Filmed three years ago in the home of director Oren Peli, Paranormal Activity scares us with a premise so stripped-down as to make Blair Witch seem like Titanic. The film features a total of four characters, with two only in a handful of scenes – leaving the rest of the movie to be borne on the inexperienced shoulders of Micah Shoat and Katie Featherstone, unknown actors who go by their real names in the story. Micah and Katie, we’re told, have been dating for a while and recently moved in together. Katie waited until shacking up with Micah to share an unusual fact about herself: since childhood, she has been tormented by an unseen force that she believes to be a demon.
The entire film is composed of “found footage” shot by Micah using a handheld video camera he purchased as a response to Katie’s revelation; Micah, something of a lunkhead, plans to use the camera to film their household lives and show Katie that what she has always considered a haunting is in fact nothing more than errant gusts of wind, or at worst a determined but utterly human stalker. In short, he trivializes her fears, and through the lens of the video camera we’re given a fly-on-the-wall perspective of that trivialization. We also get to see bits and pieces suggesting exactly what’s got Katie so spooked – and it’s not a gust of wind.
What is it, exactly? We’re never told, and we never see anything more than banal unexplainable phenomena: a door that pushes itself open and closed; a shadow without substance flitting across a wall; odd noises that are investigated without resolution. These are the parlor tricks of a run-of-the-mill haunted house experience, and director Peli delivers them to us with absolute sincerity and chilling effectiveness. Best of all, unlike Blair Witch (which treated its suspense with a similar strategy of what-you-don’t-see-can-still-scare-you), the story even provides an organic ebb and flow of its shocks. The film’s footage is presented in chronological order over a couple of weeks, but most of the shocks occur at night when the couple are sleeping, with the camera positioned at the foot of their bed. Whenever the scenes transition from mundane daytime to the gray-green glow of night, we’re quickly conditioned to expect something creepy to happen. And our expectations are richly rewarded.
Paranormal Activity is a genre film, and truly transcendent genre films are rare: The acting here is unexceptional, and the narrative settles much too easily for conceits designed to keep Micah and Katie in the house, regardless of how stupid it makes them look. But if it’s not a great movie, that doesn’t keep Peli’s film from remaining a great experience for anyone seeking a good scare. At any age, we’re all still capable of being startled by someone sneaking up behind us and yelling “Boo!” Sure we’re embarrassed to fall for something so elemental, but our embarrassment doesn’t make it any less effective. By keeping things simple, the makers of Paranormal Activity are showing audiences – and Hollywood – just how smart they really are.