After all the hysteria and hoopla surrounding 1999's Blair Witch Project died down, the "found footage" niche more or less disappeared for nearly a decade. Then came Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity , and suddenly, this subgenre exploded all over again, and in much grander fashion than before. And not without reason, either. While Blair Witch is still hailed as a genre classic by some, and even as one of the most influential films of all time by a few, it was really just a movie about a few scared kids wandering lost in the woods until they met a grisly end that was left largely to the imagination of the viewer. It did a decent enough job establishing a creepy atmosphere the first time around, but it had no replay value to speak of, and it's lack of any kind of formal script did not exactly model a formula that most filmmakers would want to follow. Paranormal Activity tweaked that formula instead of merely ripping it off.
Basically the only things that the two films have in common is that they are both shot with home video cameras owned by characters in the movies, they were both made on small budgets, and they both feature actors with the same first names as their characters. Paranormal Activity not only benefits from a fully cooked script, it also reaps the reward of a story that is simply more engaging and more fully realized by its actors. This was the first found footage film that truly felt like a real movie, with a coherent beginning, middle and end. Finally, studios had a formula for success that they could easily glom onto, although it speaks to the quality of the Paranormal films that most of the other attempts at riffing on the same tune have been vastly inferior.
One of the benefits of having an actual script is that the characters in Paranormal Activity are easier to wrap your arms around. Rather than spending most of their screen time wandering around panicking and screaming in the wilderness, the viewer is invited into the home and personal lives of Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston). We get to watch as they become increasingly uncomfortable in their own home due to the escalating haunting that becomes ever more obvious and malevolent. We are also given just enough backstory to know that Katie has been a haunted individual for most of her life, which makes it more believable when she decides to seek out the help of a psychic (Mark Fredrichs). When the psychic makes it known that what Katie and Micah face is no run of the mill ghost, but an actual demon from Hell who has never been human, and who will stop at nothing to claim Katie for its own, Katie's fear elevates to a palpable level. Micah's resolve to catch the entity on tape is reinforced by this news as well, even though he is still reluctant to believe that something supernatural is truly going on, and despite Katie's protestations that the video camera is making things worse.
Now, before I go any further, it behooves me to say that I am not one of those people who reflexively likes just any "found footage" movie, nor am I the type of person who thinks that "less is always more" when it comes to the question of whether the "monster" should be shown to the audience or left to their imagination in this type of film. Sometimes, leaving a lot to the imagination can be spectacularly effective. Other times, it's a blatant cop-out, and an admission that the creators of the film couldn't come up with any truly scary visuals. However, Paranormal Activity is a film that I truly feel is a near perfect example of the "found footage" premise done right. Moreover, it rather skillfully sidesteps the whole "less is more" or "more is more" debate by finding a middle ground in which the audience does get tons of creepy and well-executed visuals without ever seeing a fully revealed demonic entity. The fact that the demon never abandons its invisibility to the human eye makes it all the more scary as its attacks on Katie and Micah become more and more fierce. What starts with doors slamming and blankets lifting seemingly by themselves soon graduates to Ouija boards spontaneously bursting into flame, main characters being yanked bodily from their bed and dragged down hallways, and bruises and bite marks that are inflicted upon them while they sleep. Soon after, the demon demonstrates that it has the ability to affect Katie's mental state as well, and even control her to a degree is that not fully revealed until the shattering ending (or endings, more accurately, since there are at least a half dozen alternate ones floating around out there).
As well-crafted as these moments are, some of the smaller, quieter moments in Paranormal Activity are perhaps even more effective. When Katie finds a singed picture in the attic that should have been lost in a house fire when she was a little girl, both she and the audience know what that implies. When Micah sprinkles baby powder in the doorway to their bedroom, only to find hoof prints tracked through the powder the next morning, the viewer can feel the same eerie feeling that the characters do upon seeing tracks leading into the room with them, but none leading out . And when the psychic is called for a return visit, only to refuse to take more than a step into the house and immediately bidding a hasty retreat, we pretty much know that these characters are doomed, and have no other resources to turn to for help.
As is the case with a lot of these types of movies, Paranormal Activity is not a film with a high body count, opting instead to drop us into the lives of 2 main characters as a shapeless evil they can scarcely understand unravels them. A big part of the leg up this movie has on other films that employ similar tactics is the charisma of Sloat and Featherston, as well as the chemistry they have together. The script gave them the bare bones they needed to establish that chemistry, but Peli's competence as a director and the skill of the actors themselves kicks it up more than a few notches. Another cool little touch is the fact that the movie counts out every night of filming on screen for the viewer. When it flashes "Night 1", we know we can probably still feel a little relaxed, because surely the worst is yet to come. But by the time we get to "Night 5", the film has effectively established that all bets are off and anything can happen, because the severity of the haunting has been steadily increasing every single evening.
I have always thought that this film had more replay value than most movies of its ilk, but I did initially fear that I might get sick of it after a handful of viewings. However, the direction chosen for the sequels, which have thus far made every installment another chapter of a continuing story told backwards, lends more enjoyment to each previous installment every time a new film in the franchise is released. It's actually even more fun now to go back and see how the events of Paranormal Activity inform the events of PA2 and PA3.
There is a vocal minority out there who finds the entire Paranormal Activity franchise boring and unimpressive. While opinions of any movie will always run the gamut, it's my theory that a lot of these people simply did not approach the first film with an open mind, and have never given the franchise a serious second look. While this first entry does not slash up a dozen drunken teenagers, or boast any cat-and-mouse chase sequences, it excels at presenting a realistic and intimate view of a lovely young couple battling a force they cannot hope to defeat, and the fact that it moves at the speed of real life is sort of the point. Sure, there are moments that don't exactly crackle with excitement, just as there are mundane moments in the lives of most real people who are simply hanging out at their own houses. But even these moments add to the characters of Katie and Micah, helping to establish their personalities and making the love they share ring true. Although the shit does indeed hit the fan soon after, quickening the pace of the movie, I personally would not have cared nearly as much about anything that happened to these characters if those seemingly ordinary moments earlier on had not so skillfully drawn me into their lives. To me, Paranormal Activity represents a damn fine opening volley in a franchise with true staying power that has reshaped the landscape of horror movies the way no other film had since Scream. There will always be people out there who want to tear down any movie that proves to be influential, but in my opinion, Paranormal Activity is influential because it deserves to be. Just like the demon that wreaks so much havoc throughout the film, this movie is a force to be reckoned with that refuses to be forgotten.
I should have time to crank these things out a bit faster over the next few days, so be on the lookout for my next installment!