Directed by Oren Peli
Paramount Pictures, 2009
By Sean Kelly
I first found out about Paranormal Activity in mid-September when I was busy with the Toronto Film Festival and not paying too much attention to the movie news sites I usually frequent. However, I was intrigued when I read about this supposedly terrifying independent horror film that people were calling the next Blair Witch Project. I even read a story about Steven Spielberg watching a screener of the film and then, after an incident where his bedroom door apparently locked on its own, returning the film in a garbage bag for fear it was haunted.
The film was initially given a very limited release, but movie fans had the chance to demand online to have the film expanded to their city. Toronto won an expansion and I decided to risk being stranded downtown to check out the limited midnight screening of the film.
Paranormal Activity is quite similar to The Blair Witch Project in that it has the appearance of real home video footage that was found and edited together after the events portrayed. Another similar trait to Blair Witch is how lead actors Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat use their real names in the film.
The basic plot of the film involves Katie complaining about strange night time occurrences at their house, prompting Micah to leave a video camera running throughout the night to catch these hauntings as they happen. It is quickly established through an exposition-filled visit by a ghost-hunting psychic, that the hauntings are more likely being caused by a demonic rather than ghostly presence, and the couple are warned not to provoke the demon in fear of making things worse. Micah is very skeptical at the belief that there may be a demon in their house, and asks Katie not to call the demonologist recommended by the psychic while he continues filming the activity at night.
The hype around this film — the chorus saying it is absolutely terrifying — is right on the money. Most of the horror comes from how the film truly looks like nothing more than home video footage and you come to believe at a gut level that there is actually a demonic presence in the house. The hauntings start off as very light with only odd sounds and creaking doors, but they become more intense and violent as the film progresses. I also have to say that it is amazing how well-done the haunting effects are, considering the film’s very low budget. I believe there was only one scene where special effects were obvious; however, it was excusable, since the scene still came off as frightening.
Since nearly all the activity within the film happens while Katie and Micah are either sleeping or, in one case, out of the house, the film really burns one question into your mind: if there was a haunting in your house, would you really know about it? It really adds to the “fear of the unknown” aspect of the film and helps make it one of the most frightening films I have ever seen.
Before I finish, I would like to give my own brief comparison of the film to The Blair Witch Project, which it’s already being widely compared to. I still like Blair Witch very much; however, I have to say that Paranormal Activity eclipses it in terms of being absolutely terrifying and realistic. Blair Witch has maybe two scenes that are truly frightening, while Paranormal Activity has an escalating terror that builds up throughout the film.
To my mind, Paranormal Activity lived up to the hype and has now replaced Blair Witch Project at the top of the heap of “found footage” horror films. I came home from the midnight screening to find out that the film is expanding into wide release and I recommend that you check it out on the big screen in a theatre. It’s sure to be a genuinely terrifying experience.