Written and Directed by: Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat
Reviewed by: Brett G.
”What Happens When You Sleep?”
Ten years ago, a small independent film shot on a $30,000 budget generated a ton of buzz and briefly took the nation by storm. Though it was one of the most financially successful films of all time, the reaction in the years hence has not been kind to The Blair Witch Project, and, for whatever reason, no one attempted to capitalize on its success by creating another similar film. Perhaps it was an example of cinematic lightning in a bottle, but the film didn’t inspire a wave of similarly-produced films as is often the case in the horror genre. While other films have no doubt copied its hand-held camera style, it’s taken ten years for lightning to strike once again, and it has done so in the form of Paranormal Activity. Initially produced and released on the festival circuit in 2007, the film’s reputation has especially grown in recent months after it has finally hit some major market theaters. The reaction was so positive that Paramount took the unprecedented move of giving the film a wide nationwide release.
Micah and Katie are a normal young couple that has been together for three years, and have decided to begin living together in Micah’s home. However, unbeknownst to Micah, something else has moved in with Katie as strange, unexplainable events begin to happen each night: the sound of mysterious footsteps, crashing noises, opening doors, etc. Determined to resolve the problem, Micah invests in a high-end camcorder in the hopes of capturing the paranormal activity on film. He gets more than he bargains for when it becomes apparent that the malevolent force, which has been following Katie since she was eight years old, becomes increasingly antagonistic and violent.
After all the build-up, the question on everyone’s mind is whether or not the massive hype for this movie is justified, and I have to say that it is because it’s simply a creepy time at the movies. Like the aforementioned Blair Witch Project, it’s a film that preys on one’s fears of the unknown and relies on a very sparse, minimalist approach to unnerve rather than shock you at every turn. It’s a slow build, and it never truly reaches manic levels of hysteria; instead, everything is a bit understated and relies more on not showing things more so than actually showing them. This is a good example of a horror film that reminds us that sometimes what isn’t seen is scarier than shoving a monstrous villain in an audience’s face at every opportunity.
While the film doesn’t exactly have as rich of a mythology built into it as The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity still succeeds because its situation feels so familiar: everyone can relate to hearing things go bump in the night. Although there might not be a demonic force behind such bumps, nothing is quite as paralyzing as hearing strange noises in the darkness of your own home, and this film captures that feeling perfectly. A majority of the film’s scares are subtle and often rely more on audio rather than any visuals, and it works well. Furthermore, the film never relies too much on exposition to overly explain the phenomena—possibilities are presented, and the film eventually provides just enough to explain it so you’re not exactly left with a frustratingly ambiguous ending. Still, the film largely relies on a sense of mystery to add to the tension surrounding the events as the two leads attempt to discover just what evil entity has been following Katie her entire life.
The film’s highlights are no doubt the segments that capture all the disturbing activity as the two sleep: doors creak open, things slam against the walls, heavy breathing is heard, among other strange events. These events eventually build in their intensity, but I’d be hard pressed to say that they lead to a loud, hysterical crescendo. Instead, the film’s climax remains true to the tone of the film by being understated, unsettling, and even a bit haunting. This is not to say that these sequences are the only thing interesting in the film—far from it, as Micah and Katie are well done characters that are brought to life by some outstanding performances. There are times where you forget that it’s a movie because their interactions are so natural; thus, when all the strange events begin to happen, it feels like they’re happening to real people. The two personalities contrast very well; Katie is of course scared out of her mind, but Micah plays a more skeptical role and brings a lot of levity to the film with his humor.
The rest of the cast is rather sparse—we meet one of Katie’s friends and a psychic that investigates the house. The latter character delivers one of the film’s most effective moments when he arrives at the house and immediately begins to sense the evil force. Again, this is an excellent example of the film’s ability to be disturbing without necessarily showing a single thing, as the terror on the psychic’s face and the tremor in his voice sells the entity and its malevolent nature well. Even though I’m not a believer in the type of activity seen in the film, Paranormal Activity does a wonderful job in presenting the material in a believable way. There’s absolutely nothing cinematic about the film, and it’s all the better for it. Without spoiling too much, I’ll just say that this sort of material has been seen dozens of times in horror films, but never quite like this.
The film’s nationwide release is a true boon, if only because this is one of the most unique experiences in the horror genre. If history repeats itself, it might be another ten years before a film of this sort comes around, and regardless of your feelings towards it, the theatrical experience should be memorable. Not since the Blair Witch Project have I seen a film cause such an audible reaction from an audience; as such, I urge everyone to check this one out in the theaters if possible. That said, I also can imagine the film hitting its stride when it comes to home video because I have a feeling that this film is going to do for bedrooms what The Blair Witch Project did for the woods. Those spooky, unexplainable noises will take on a whole new meaning, and there might be a lot of people sleeping with the lights on for a couple days after seeing this one. Buy it!
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