Less is more is the mantra carried out by director Oren Peli throughout his debut film Paranormal Activity. The mockumentary style horror film has been making noise, creating buzz and scorching up the box office charts ever since its initial limited release in September.
And it’s easy to see why a film such as Paranormal Activity can frighten and excite audiences so easily. With no suffocating glitz of a typical Hollywood horror film or thick wall of fake installed to separate the audience and the characters, Paranormal Activity is a realistic, believable and modern take on the haunted house genre.
A lot of the believability and realistic tendencies of the haunting of couple Katie and Micah come from the minimalistic nature of Peli’s film. Leaving some of the scare unexposed and inside the mind, the film encourages audience imagination. In a time where the horror genre is saturated with films whose intentions are to expose as much pain, terror and grief as possible, Peli shows he understands that the opposite of that method can be just as effective, if not more.
The most macabre films of the 1940’s and on made their way into spooking audiences through atmosphere and terror of another kind, not by seeing how many pounds of intestines they can show moviegoers. And with Paranormal Activity there is a sort of rousing of this old school style found in those more classic types of horror films. With a miniscule budget of $15,000, Peli faced that same sort of barrier an older film with no means for extravagance might have, but one he overcame and seemed to most certainly welcome. Peli’s methodical film is a reminder that the lost art of making truly terrifying cinema isn’t so lost after all.
In full, Paranormal Activity is a toxic mix of the techniques of The Blair Witch Project and the spooky happenings of Robert Wise’s classic 1963 horror film The Haunting. And I say all that as only to shed some light where the inspiration of this film comes from, not to imply any sort of “been there, done that” attitude. And even though there are striking similarities to the BBC’s faux news program Ghostwatch that was broadcasted on Halloween in 1992, this is somewhere horror fans simply haven’t been yet. This is the rare little film that could, breaking through all conventions of the genre seen in the more modern years.
Peli’s grassroots direction is both deliberate in nature but oh so vicious and intense at climax. Peli creates what can only be described as textbook horror suspense. The film is a constant cycle of buildup and slowdown, separated by day and night. And even when you know and can feel that something is about to happen, the film still manages to place you on the edge of your nerves, even to a point where the most frightened viewers of the film will fear night and the darkness it brings as much as the haunted Katie does.
Many words are fair game in describing the scares brought on by Peli. Freaky, creepy and disturbing would rank on the top of that list. Whether the film will truly frighten you both in theaters and later that night at home when you turn the light off is completely subjective. Those who feast on the terror will be reeling from the excitement of it all, while those most susceptible to fright might find themselves in over their heads. It isn’t my job to tell you if you’ll be scared by this film or not. If you’ve been scared by a horror film before, chances are you’re in for something here, as the film has the capability to unsettle even those most steel-nerved horror fanatics. But Peli’s film will only be effective on those who allow it to be. I can’t stress enough how necessary it is to let yourself into the film and truly want to be scared by it. On that level is where Paranormal Activity is most effective.
And if anyone has trouble placing themselves inside this film it might be due to the interaction between Katie and Micah, the two that combine to make for one irritable couple. They don’t act like they’ve been dating for three years, and Micah’s constant desire to not listen to his partner is almost as disturbing and unlikeable as the demons haunting their nights. I found this to be really forgettable and forgivable, as Peli has already said that the dialogue was “natural” because there was no true script to the film, just situations to set off improvisation. But in a strange way, Peli’s course for natural dialogue pays off, as it hides the rather amateurish acting of both Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston. Just don’t go looking for any sort of character development.
While I’m pretty sure Paranormal Activity hasn’t made me afraid to sleep with the lights off, it’s most certainly a wonderful case of how sometimes a genuinely haunting atmosphere and perfect suspense building combined with a believable style of storytelling can make for some of the most effective and unnerving moments the horror genre has seen in years.