February 29, 2012 by Matthew T.
Written & Directed By: Oren Peli
The “P.O.V.” horror subgenre, first made popular by The Blair Witch Project in 1999, has slowly taken off with titles such as Quarantine, REC,Cloverfield, and Paranormal Activity. Although the former deal with zombies and witches, Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity rounds out the pack by dealing with a demonic “invasion” of a young couple’s life. Although suffering from some forced script writing, and an ending that is surpassed by its DVD bonus alternates, Paranormal Activity delivers genuine suspense and ends up a superbly tense and terrifying film.
Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat), our protagonists, first appear as the normal everyday couple, Micah having just purchased the shiny new camera that provides our view. Through conversation between the couple we realize that things are not all they seem in the household, and that strange titular paranormal activity has been taking place justifying the purchase of the aforementioned camera. It’s revealed early on that whatever is causing this activity, it has followed Katie since she was eight years old. Micah has it in his mindset to set the camera up in the bedroom at night in order to catch whatever it is that’s disturbing them. A psychic’s visit reveals that this is no mere ghost that haunts the halls – a demon has targeted Katie for unknown reasons, and no amount of running or hiding will stop it.
Over the next three weeks, we watch as the activity escalates in size, duration, and terror. As is typical for the genre, the scares are short and sweet at the start. Footsteps are heard, accompanied by what can only be described as a low frequency “noise”, which becomes a recurring motif to signify all is not well. As the days progress, these events expand to include doors slamming, phantom banging, footprints, E.V.P.’s, (Electronic Voice Phenomena) and more. Although these are all tense, jump-worthy moments of themselves, one of the film’s highlights is what you don’t see or hear. Moments when Katie mysteriously awakens in the middle of the night, only to stand perfectly still beside the bed for hours (the clock fast-forwards) are just as disturbing, if not more so.
The cinematography is the one of the obvious stand out points, given the P.O.V. perspective. Handheld shakiness, light glare, and film grain (especially while using night vision) help add a sense of reality to the film. On blu-ray, with 1080p and 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound, the high definition only highlights the “home video” aspect more (for better or worse, is up to you). It does portray a sense of “being there” rather well, despite a few moments when holding the camera is a priority for these characters, rather than dropping it and running (like I’m sure most of us would). Where the film stumbles ever so slightly is in the script.
For the most part, the dialogue is improvised, remarkably so. Katie and Micah convey their relationship in a realistic manner, whispering sweet nothings, making jokes, and even Micah asking for a strip-tease on night one (to no avail). But when the time comes to get important plot points around, the improv takes a back seat to scripted line delivery, which stands out rather obviously from the rest of the couple’s banter. It doesn’t ruin the experience; the audience is certainly not watching to listen to the couple speak for an hour and 20 minutes, but it is a noticeable hiccup.
The final flaw I have with this film is the ending. Obviously the scariest and most pertinent point in the film, the theatrical ending is rather abrupt. While still adding shock value, the final frame leans more towards Hollywood horror than the indie terror we’ve experienced until this point. The “alternate endings” that exist for this film actually improve the story, even while *SPOILER* effectively destroying any chance of a sequel.*END SPOILER* Without ruining anything else, I have seen three (two are on the blu-ray and DVD, the third one I saw was from an early screener copy) and oddly enough, the two that AREN’T the theatrical endings are much creepier, and less “Hollywood”. The alternate already on the DVD is my favourite, although if you get a chance to see the third, I recommend them both over the original ending.
All things considered, if you’ve ever watched a reality TV “ghost” show and enjoyed it for even a minute, you owe it to yourself to check out Paranormal Activity. It doesn’t revolutionize the horror genre by any means, but it certainly raises the bar of “P.O.V.” set by the Blair Witch Project. Despite some minor forced script issues, and slightly cop-out ending, the unnerving terror of having something in your home is well worth your time.