Paranormal Activity reputedly had its genesis in director Oren Peli’s lifelong fear of ghosts, which led him to do intensive research into haunting, demonic possession, and other “paranormal activities.” This resulted in the development of this movie’s concept, which is a simple one: a young couple, experiencing odd occurrences (including noises, cold spots, doors opening and closing by themselves, objects relocating while no one is looking, etc.) in their new suburban home, decide to document these happenings on video. Peli shot the raw footage on a minuscule budget (some sources report $12,000, others $15,000) during an intense one-week schedule, using his own San Diego home — modified in accordance with the script — as the setting.
So how has this shoestring-budgeted faux documentary by a first-time filmmaker managed to convey its creator’s spectral anxieties? Peli believes the movie is effective because of the “performances of Micah [Sloat] and Katie [Featherston], who did such an amazing job being convincing as not only real people but as a real couple.” Rather than having the actors learn a script, Peli adopted the same improvisational strategy used by The Blair Witch Project, in which the actors, who share their names and much of their identities with the characters, spontaneously respond to the scenario as it unfolds. And given that Katie and Micah are the only characters with whom the audience has any kind of sustained relationship, the film’s efficacy is almost entirely dependent on their performances — it’s a boon, then, that both are quite believable.
In addition to Peli’s point about the chemistry of the actors, what really allows this film to sustain an atmosphere of suspense is the way it induces of a kind of paranoiac watchfulness in the audience. Excellent use is made of time-lapsed footage as the camera records vacant rooms, forcing the audience to focus closely, knowing something awry will eventually occur. There’s welcome space to examine these almost static scenes, anxiously seeking some visual anomaly. In this scrutinizing state, the smallest details — an odd sound, an inexplicable shadow moving in the corner of the room — take on great potential to startle. In addition, something about the act of recording what would normally be an intimate domestic space while it’s silent and vacant automatically invests it with an unsettling quality, as even the most innocuous object becomes the source of a potential scare.
The final thing that the film trades in effectively, and the thing likely to leave viewers with a case of the midnight jitters for days, is the intense vulnerability we all experience while asleep. There’s something vaguely unnerving about the bedroom sequences that make up much of the film, as the camera records Micah and Katie lying in bed, seemingly dead to the world, and this vague discomfort is gradually given more concrete expression, leading up to the sudden conclusion, which apparently differs from the two alternate endings used during the movie’s limited distribution release. While avoiding spoiler-specific discussion, this writer wasn’t as impressed by the final scenes as many other viewers seem to have been. (Admittedly, I did see some great reactions in my fellow viewers at this point, including one guy sitting behind me who asked, “How the hell did you sit through that so calmly?”). The ending is frustrating for many of the same reasons that as the heavy-handed final scenes of Quarantine (but at least Paranormal Activity‘s producers didn’t give away the ghost, pardon the pun, by putting the final scene of the movie on the promotional poster and in the trailers — whose brilliant idea was that?). This objection aside, the movie’s hyper-tense atmosphere and unusually effective jump-scares, probably the primary desiderata for most viewers, make it well worth watching, especially given have lacking these elements often are in contemporary Hollywood horror. To crudely quantify the film’s success in physiological terms: Paranormal Activity is roughly four nights of 12 AM edge-of sleep discomfort good.