Paranormal Activity is one of those movies where the off-screen story is so compelling, you're tempted to give the film itself a pass, quality be damned. Writer/director Oren Peli devised his horror story to be shot in his home, primarily with two actors, and made it for something like 15 grand. It attracted enough festival attention for a pick-up by Paramount, who mounted an ingenious ad campaign that boosted the picture to a $100 million-plus gross.
That Cinderella success story is reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, and the films are not dissimilar stylistically. Like that 1999 smash, Paranormal Activity works within the "found footage" construct, beginning with a solemn on-screen note that "Paramount Pictures would like to thank the families of Micah Sloat & Katie Featherstone and the San Diego Police Department." Micah and Katie are a young, attractive couple living in northern California; they're unmarried but cohabitating, and Micah jokes that they're "engaged to be engaged" (Katie seems to find that joke far less funny than he does). We meet them on either sides of Micah's new video camera; he shoots her arriving home, and from their conversation, we piece together that he made the purchase in order to videotape their bedroom at night, where some weird things have been happening while they sleep.
Featherstone and Sloat make for a believable couple--they wear their relationship comfortably and naturally. Their extemporaneous dialogue (they worked mostly from an outline) feels captured, not "improvised" (the way that some of the less artful dialogue in Blair Witch did)--for better or worse, much of the first act really is like watching someone's home movies. But the film is a slow burn; Peli understands the basic emotional truth about horror movies that eludes so many of today's hacks, which is that set-up, characterization, conflict, and humor are as essential a part of the toolbox as scares and gore. Peli and his fine actors use their charisma and likability to draw us in; consequently, we're more interested in what's happening to them.
As promised, Mica's camera starts capturing some nocturnal oddities--strange noises, lights flicking, objects moving, doors closing. Katie insists that they consult a psychic (Mark Fredrichs), who helps Katie piece together the notion that a paranormal presence that has haunted her since childhood has followed her to their new home. Micah doesn't understand what it wants. The reply is chilling: "What it probably wants is Katie." (He follows that with a less-than-comforting "You're gonna be fine.") The psychic advises them to reach out to a demonologist, but Micah's not hearing it; on the other hand, he's entirely open to the notion of bringing home a Ouija board, the kind of "reaching out" and "opening up" that the psychic explicitly advises against. And then things start to get really out of hand.
Throughout the film, but particularly in its high-strung third act, Peli traffics in good, old-fashioned scares, based in tension and suspense (what we don't see is, in many cases, far more terrifying than what we do). But it's not all a jump-out-and-say-boo show; the picture's clever construction shows the psychological toll that the presence is taking on their lives. The blissful cheeriness of their early relationship starkly contrasts the bitter helplessness of their later interactions--we're not just getting empty scares, but (as in real horror classics like Rosemary's Baby) the psychological discomfort of watching the way this thing tears at them.
The picture is, to be sure, far from perfect--those opening scenes, important though they may be, do drag, and there's no sense of the characters' lives aside from this. Do they work? Go to school? Late in the film, Katie chastises Micah for bothering her when she's "trying to study," but from the looks of what we see on-screen, they appear to spend their days waiting around to go to bed again. And it seems like they should have more options towards the end of the film than they do (the psychic's brief return feels like a storytelling convenience rather than an honest reaction). Those are the complaints. They don't really matter. Paranormal Activity is a compelling picture, pulling us in tightly with it skillful faux-naturalism. We believe this story, and we are drawn into it exponentially more than in a standard horror narrative.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Shot on the cheap, Paranormal Activity gets an expectedly low-fi looking MPEG-4 AVC transfer. By its very nature, Blu-ray tends to amplify the 1.78:1 image's weaknesses (ringing, occasional unevenness and noise), while playing up the strengths (the crispness and cleanness of the digital picture, the full saturation of its daytime scenes). It's not going to blow anyone's mind, but the workmanlike transfer makes the film look about as good as you could expect a $15,000 film to look.
I was struck throughout the film by the inventiveness and importance of the sound design--again, with so much of the horror implied or overheard, and so many of the scares coming from the placement, timing, and volume of sound effects, the audio must do much of the heavy lifting. On the other hand, the film is ostensibly shot entirely using a shotgun mic attached to a video camera, so much of the action must live in the center channel--the DTS-HD MA mix must engage and envelop us without seeming incongruent with the homemade aesthetic. Somehow, they make it work; the audio is effective while still seeming to be grabbed on the fly, dialogue is clear without being too clean, and the nighttime rumbling lights a nice fire under the LFE channel.
The disc also comes with a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 channel and English, English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Here's where the disc comes up short. To be fair, Paramount appears to have taken the faux-doc approach clear to the stripped-down, no-frills menu design, but that all sort of falls away when the only bonus features they offer are very different versions of the ending. Viewers can choose to watch the film with either the original theatrical ending or an alternate ending; I watched the theatrical version. You can also choose to watch the Theatrical Ending Only (5:11) or the Alternate Ending Only (5:11); the alternate version is a little artsier, and would have certainly been less satisfying for an audience, but is still interesting.
That's it, aside for a Shutter Island Trailer (2:24) and a Digital Copy disc; I'm not sure if the dearth of extras was due to the brief window between the theatrical and home video releases (less than three months), but commentary, behind-the-scenes footage, deleted scenes (there must have been plenty), and a third festival ending (discussed here) are all MIA.
I'm not usually a fan of horror films, but this one genuinely got under my skin. Skillful and intelligent, Paranormal Activity lives up to its considerable hype (at least for this viewer)--it's a taut, nerve-jangling thriller, and that closing scene is one scary sonofabitch.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.