Paranormal Activity

Film
4 out of 5 stars
‘The fear of what happens at night while you are asleep,’ director Oren Peli has observed, ‘is a primal one that everyone has in common.’ It’s this feeling of vulnerability that Peli’s slow-burning supernatural chiller so effectively exploits, fashioning heart-stopping scares out of almost nothing. Shown without opening or closing credits, the images are presented as ‘found’ video footage recorded inside the San Diego suburban home of day trader Micah (Micah Sloat) and his graduate student girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston), whose sleep is disturbed by those bumps, scratches and creaks that tease your peripheral hearing when you’re half asleep. The crucial difference is that what was once unknowable is now visible, thanks to a ‘night vision’ video camera set up in the couple’s bedroom.

It’s Micah who bought the video camera, and it is he who obsessively pores over hours of footage, searching for black-and-white evidence that the house is haunted. What the camera coldly observes is disturbing but far from conclusive: a shadow falls across the open bedroom door; a sheet billows as if something is trying to slip beneath it; sleepwalking Katie climbs out of the bed and stands beside it, vibrating slightly on the spot. Despite this, we empathise totally with Katie’s powerlessness and fear. We want to shout ‘Wake up!’, but we know she won’t hear us. Micah, by contrast, is oblivious to Katie’s deteriorating mental state and to the unravelling of their friendly, relaxed relationship. During a visit by an oddball psychic, Katie and Micah were told that the demon – if that is what it is – will feed off any emotional discord, a warning that now seems to be coming true.

In the ten years since the success of ‘The Blair Witch Project’, dozens of horror movies have tried and failed to emulate its surprise success. So what is it that made ‘Paranormal Activity’, a $15,000 debut feature shot in a week by a computer-games programmer, into a $100 million box-office phenomenon? Well, leaving aside Paramount’s brilliant viral marketing campaign, pretty much everything.

Firstly, as Peli acknowledges, actors Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston are not merely improvising their characters, they’re telling the story; as individuals and as a couple, they are both utterly natural and convincing. Secondly, Peli’s familiarity with technology allows him to make imaginative, compelling use of it, achieving maximum effect with minimum resources. Even when the camera is locked on to the tripod, showing only a static shot of the bedroom, its open door and the corridor beyond, the quivering tension is maintained, our eyes combing the shadows and the edges of the frame in search of anything out of the ordinary. Thirdly, Peli makes brilliant use of sound effects, sometimes forcing us to imagine entire scenes that take place off-screen. See it if you dare – sleepless nights await.

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