Paranormal Activity (2009)
US (dir. Oren Peli)
Cast: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Michael Bayouth, Amber Armstrong, Mark Fredrichs, Randy McDowell, Ashley Palmer, Tim Piper
Synopsis: Katie and Micah are enjoying a happy and carefree existence. Their future looks promising until bizarre events begin to occur at night. In order to get to the bottom of things, Katie and Micah purchase a video camera to find out what happens at night while they sleep.
Review: “Paranormal Activity” is a film that, despite being made on a shoestring budget and with not a heavy use of CGI or big name actors to back it up, managed to pack a huge punch in theaters and become the most profitable movie in history (by profitable I mean the producers spent very little on the movie and ended up making a whole lot). . Whether it was due to word of mouth, the “Demand it!” button on eventful.com, or the YouTube teaser trailer which was mainly comprised of test audience reactions to the film, or a combination of all these and more, “Paranormal Activity” managed to spark interest in hardcore horror fans, the occasional horror movie watchers and curious thrill seekers eager to watch what many were hailing as “the scariest movie of 2009”. My reaction to this film’s hype during the pre-Halloween season of 2009? Bring it on. My reaction to people deeming this movie to be the scariest of 2009, or even the decade? Wholeheartedly agreed. Therefore it is to be noted that I, author of this humble little blog, deem “Paranormal Activity” to be the best horror film I’ve seen in 2009 and a forerunner for best horror film of the ’00s.
To be honest any, and most likely all, haunted house movies scare the shit out of me. Perhaps it’s because this sub genre of horror films hits close to home (pun not intended) because, let’s face it, most of us do or have lived in houses at one time or another. But whether or not we have actually lived in a house-like structure, we are familiar with the concept of a home and are at least somewhat aware of how its safety and security can be impacted by the presence of something else… the all terrifying unknown.
Psychological explanations aside, haunted house movies are scary because they can take advantage of classic “jump” scares and take simple things like loud noises, slamming doors, and low frequency humming with a shitload of bass and make them downright terrifying. Since “Paranormal Activity” clearly did not have a massive budget, it relied very heavily on these simple, cheap/easy to film elements – and it worked! It’s important to note, however, that the simple elements that make up “Paranormal Activity” could not have possibly existed on their own, it took at least 20 minutes to pack in the first little scare and a whole 90 minutes of build up to get to the the big final scare, which on its own wouldn’t have been frightening at all.
What I liked about “Paranormal Activity” was that the couple at the center of the movie, Micah and Katie, were actually likable and enjoyable to watch. They never, at any point in the movie, became annoying, boring, or tedious to have to watch. Katie was the perfect “victim” character, a very pretty lady with a natural ability for acting, a great voice, and an engaging personality. Micah was a clear favorite for me as the funny, absolutely adorable, boyfriend with a strong urge to help save his girlfriend and his house from the presence of a malicious demon. He, like Katie, gave a great believable performance, and I really enjoyed watching him. There were only two other people in this movie, a friend of Katie’s who shows up in only two or three short scenes, and a psychic/ghost expert who shows up for one extended scene that functions to explain what Katie and Micah are dealing with and then later shows up only to tell them both they are beyond screwed. The fact that there are so few supporting actors in this movie is really a testament to Katie and Micah’s ability to capture the audience’s interest and hold it for almost 2 hours, something that I find is lacking in other horror movies with small casts. I also really liked how the couple don’t spend the entire film bickering over stupid shit related to the fact that they have a demon in their house stalking one of them because it would have been really horrendous having to sit through a good 2 hours of that. Having them bicker a few times but then promptly resolve it made me feel more sympathetic towards them rather than just grow to hate them.
The only thing that made me feel slightly unsympathetic towards them and even a little suspicious of them was the fact that they seemed so enormously wealthy: three bedroom house in San Diego, sports car, swimming pool, leather couches, big screen TV, electric guitar, disposable income, etc. especially considering their age and the fact that one of them was in grad school. Sure they tried to explain it by stating how Micah was a day-trader, but it still felt odd to see how successful they were in life at such a young age.
Random opening doors, thumping footstep sounds, shadows on the walls and loud noises were all quite effectively frightening, but scenes in which an apparently possessed Katie standing over Micah while he slept for hours at a time creeped me out the most.
The creep-factor is high in “Paranormal Activity”.
Like I mentioned before, the film uses simple elements, which wouldn’t necessarily be scary on their own, spaced over the length of the movie to build fear. The film is essentially a continuous build up of events with every scare or supernatural event topping the last one. By the time things really get rolling in the second half of the film, things get pretty scary – but only because of the preceding events and the fact that they simply do not look fake or CGIed to death due to the hand-held camera usage. Unfortunately, a lot of the best/bigger scares are revealed in the trailer, so I would probably suggest not watching it before seeing the movie because it might detract from a genuinely fearsome movie going experience. But even if you do end up seeing the trailer, like I did before actually seeing the movie, I think the buildup and the tone of the film heighten those scenes in a way the trailer really cannot.
There exists two different versions of “Paranormal Activity” (and, as I have recently discovered, a third and possibly also a fourth version). One version, which is the one I saw in theaters is what I would refer to as the theatrical version, and the other, which I have seen at home, is what I would refer to as the DVD version (I’m not 100 % certain of the official names for each version). I originally intended this to be a review of the theatrical version, but since I have also seen the DVD version, it is difficult for me not to comment on both. Each version has its own charms, but I’m a definite fan of the theatrical version and I think it far surpasses the DVD version, mainly based on the ending alone. The theatrical version has a shorter, more abrupt, more shocking ending than the DVD version. The DVD version has an extended ending that I like to refer to as the “aftermath” ending where the events following the shocking ending are shown and there is more of a resolution to the film than the theatrical version offers. I like horror movie endings to be nasty, short, and brutal, so the theatrical version’s ending appealed most to me. The theatrical version also had a scene where Katie and Micah presumably have sex (off-screen, of course) and this really only adds to the film’s cuteness and believability, because are we really supposed to believe that these two didn’t screw during the 20 something days of filming themselves sleep?
Found footage movies are an easy audience frighten-er because you get so caught up in the believability of its content (with the exception of something like “Cloverfield”, however, which is obviously too grandiose to be realistically believable). I think “Paranormal Activity” does a great job at making itself a believable “found footage” type of movie because there is a great mixture of candid moments between the two main characters and the presence of the camera is easy to justify (i.e it’s not being constantly carried around by Micah, it’s almost always sitting on a tripod in their bedroom facing their bed, being used for fun, or just left on accidentally). I actually think “Paranormal Activity” is the only movie in the sub genre of found footage horror movies that relies on a completely plausible explanation for the constant use of a camera, and there is never a moment where you think to yourself how unrealistic it would be to have spent an entire length of time filming some event with a hand held camera (i.e. “Cloverfield”) especially when certain events would severely impact an individual’s ability to constantly film a certain event.
Do I think you should check out this movie? Absolutely! Unfortunately, a lot of the impact from this movie derives from seeing it in theaters with a huge audience, however this may no longer be a possibility if, by the time you read this, the movie is no longer playing in theaters. Seeing at home is a different ball game altogether, and yes, while I firmly believe the strength of a movie resides within the movie itself and not as a result of its hype or word of mouth promotion, the movie, for me at least, seemed so much better in theaters with a large group. If you get a chance too, I would recommend seeing the theatrical version rather than the DVD version. The endings are vastly different and I definitely see why the theatrical version was such a hit. This is by far the best movie I have seen in 2009 and I would be willing to even go so far as to say the movie is one of the best of the decade. It’s not a remake, it was made independently and its not laden with special effects and gore (not that gore is a bad thing, but gore does not necessarily need to make a horror movie a horror movie). Best of all, it’s a fairly original and creative idea. I’m not supportive of there being a sequel to this film, but dammit, I’ll probably watch it anyways!