Paranormal Activity (2009)

24 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Any horror film that forces Steven Spielberg to watch it in the daylight, rather than at night, deserves to be checked out. The story of how the extremely-low-budget independent thriller “Paranormal Activity” got its release is quite interesting—apparently, the film was shown at several film festivals for a couple of years before it was acquired by Dreamworks, who wanted to remake the film with a bigger budget. Spielberg got a DVD copy of the film and watched in his home at night, and was so scared to continue that he waited until morning light to finish it, after which he called the executives, saying, “We shouldn’t remake this—we should release it!” Paramount Pictures picked up the film and released it to the public.

“Paranormal Activity” is a welcome addition to the horror genre—maybe not a complete success, but enough clever moments and more importantly, terrifying moments. No doubt it’s a great movie to see with a crowd, with screams and laughs—it’d be very entertaining, but when you watch it alone in your house, what you have seems like a typical horror film. Not much fun is left. But still, it’s an effective chiller.

“Paranormal Activity” uses the first-person perspective used in other thrillers such as “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield.” It pretends to be “found documentary footage” and is seen only in a first-person perspective, from a video camera owned by one of the main characters. And better yet, all of the actors are unknowns, making it more effective—the actors use their real first names for their characters.

This first-person gimmick also creates atmosphere—much like how “The Blair Witch Project” created atmosphere with its first-person perspective in the middle of the woods, “Paranormal Activity” uses the same gimmick inside a seemingly normal suburban house.

Inside this house live a young couple—Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat)—who have just moved in. They’re experiencing a haunting of some sort, so Micah decides to buy a new camera to see if he can record anything out of the ordinary, like an amateur paranormal investigator. He’s excited about this ordeal, but for Katie, this is nothing new, as she has experienced something like this in the past.

Micah films around the house during the day and also sets up a tripod in the bedroom to record them (with the help of a computer) while they sleep. And surely enough, the camera does capture some strange happenings, like a mysterious shadow or a moving door. Micah and Katie keep trying to figure stuff out—Katie even calls a psychic to come down and see what he thinks. He concludes that this spirit is a demon and it only wants Katie, and not the house.

Every night, things get creepier and more tense. It just gets worse as it goes along, and Micah is in no way making things better. He provokes the demon! I’ve seen horror movie characters do stupid things before, but…he brings out a Ouija board to try and communicate with the demon, even though he has been specifically told not to! He’s a brave guy, all right…no, he’s just an idiot. And most of his antics pay off in a way that you just want to smack him. If you don’t yell at the screen, “Get out of the house!,” you might still feel obligated to yell, “Get a clue!”

There are many scary moments in “Paranormal Activity.” As with “The Blair Witch Project,” the fear comes more from what we don’t see. When we hear something going on elsewhere, it comes out of nowhere. We hear someone—or something—walking up the stairs and it fills us with unease. And so on. There are many hints as to what’s going on throughout the movie and it gives the audience time to try and figure out exactly what’s happening. Also, just the idea of something supernatural happening in a typical suburban house at night is creepy enough. There’s something I’d like to mention too—there’s a time code at the bottom of the screen (or viewfinder, if you will) every time the camera records them sleeping. The numbers will speed up, meaning that we’re fast-forwarding through time (usually to a few hours later). When the numbers stop…you know something is going to happen, but you don’t know what. That’s a great idea.

And then there’s the ending, or rather the final image—I won’t give it away, but I guarantee it will make even horror movie fans uneasy.

This is an effective horror film, and a terrific one in that it uses its limited resources to give us something satisfying. Both lead actors are totally convincing their roles (and Katie Featherston can let out a hell of a scream, I tell you that), the setting of one house filmed with one camera is surprisingly fitting, and of course, the scares are there.

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