Paranormal Activity. 2007. Directed & Written by Oren Peli.
Starring Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs, Amber Armstrong, and Ashley Palmer. Solana Films/Blumhouse Productions.
Rated 14A. 86 minutes.
When done correctly, I am a huge fan of found footage. Whether it’s using the thriller style, as I recently enjoyed in the film 419, or horror (The Blair Witch Project, Cannibal Holocaust, Home Movie, and many more), I believe that if a director uses the sub-genre appropriately then it can be extremely effective. Particularly, horror movies using found footage can end up having a huge impact if it isn’t simply a gimmick, or a wasted tool in the director’s arsenal.
Even further than that, a writer (or writers) needs to know the limitations of the sub-genre, as well as where it can go. Too many writers seem to let the screenplay of a found footage film fall by the wayside, like it isn’t an important aspect so much as the visuals prove to be. Very bad way to look at ANY genre or sub-genre; you always need a good script, or at least an impressive idea to work from.
There are things I do love about Paranormal Activity, while I’ve got a gripe or two, as well. Mostly, I think Oren Peli really did an excellent job as director in cultivating an impressive piece of modern horror. He singlehandedly changed the found footage game, in my mind, after the originals left their highly impressive (and better) mark – like The Blair Witch Project and the infamous, controversial Cannibal Holocaust. Now there are plenty of others, since this film’s release in 2007, trying to work off the simple yet excellent format Peli landmarked.
This is not a perfect horror, nor is it my favourite found footage film. However, I’ve got to say that when I first saw Paranormal Activity – and to this day – there were elements and scenes which really unsettled me greatly and left a lasting impression on me. I don’t think, as a veteran in watching films and TONS of horror, that I’m easily frightened. But genuinely, at times, I found myself clenching up. Not to say I wept in terror or curled into a ball. Though, I can readily admit my muscles tightened and my heart rate pumped fast in several scenes, which is all due to the acting of the two leads and the good work of writer-director Oren Peli.
I won’t waste time relating the plot. This is one of those movies we ALL know about; if not, head over to IMDB or Wikipedia and it’s laid out pretty well. I’d like to just move into the things I liked/disliked about the movie.
An aspect of the screenplay I truly do love is how the character of Micah antagonizes the presence in their home. Starting early on, within the first fifteen minutes even, Micah begins to make fun of the whole concept of some spirit (or whatever) in the house; he plays creepy music, saying he’d like to make the presence feel at home. I always like when a story incorporates scepticism in an interesting way; Micah is a part of that, as he pretty much riles up the thing in their house.
Otherwise, one of the greatest parts in my mind about Peli’s Paranormal Activity is that the effects really started to push the envelope for found footage. Since 2007 there have been plenty more found footage films which used effects to a greater degree, but at the time this came as sort of revolutionary for the sub-genre. Before this movie, and those which followed it (both sequels and other films imitating this style), most found footage horror tended to go for the lost in the woods scenario, adding in tons of shaky cam and screaming and blood/gore here or there. Peli came along and decided to keep the camera stationary almost all of the time, which really helped, and on top of that he tried as best he could to do as much practically as possible, as well as the great majority of the film is centred so much on the relationship between Katie and Micah.
Keeping the camera in one place the way he does, Peli is able to let us relax a bit and get more into the characters and the story/plot than other found footage allows us. As I said, the shaky cam is prevalent in many other films similar to this. Even the amazing Blair Witch Project, there are a couple nearly nausea inducing sequences where the characters are running, screaming, and the camera is jostling around along with their movements; to the point where it’s tough to follow anything. Luckily, that was one of the first real found footage horror movies where shaky cam became a thing, so at the time it wasn’t really overdone.
Nowadays with so many less exciting films than that trying to read in its huge footsteps, we get too many horrors using found footage and throwing in the shaky cam as a legitimate portion of the film when in fact it only detracts from the end product; we’re tired and sick of the shakiness, it’s not simply low budget and realistic it makes things look lazy. In Paranormal Activity, Peli foregoes that nonsense and allows us to get into the relationship between Katie and Micah, watching their lives unfold instead of constantly having one of them manipulate the camera, moving it around, and so on. Though Micah absolutely holds the camera at times, it’s not him running around and catching nothing except blurs. Whenever he does move it, the moment is brief, or at the least Micah is usually standing in one place. I think, albeit probably an obvious touch, Peli does his film a great service by allowing the camera to stay still a lot of the time. That way, his story comes out further, the characters are more interesting, and the plot is able to move along without the audience becoming totally unnerved (not in the right way) by the camera movement constantly shaking us out of touch with what’s happening in the film.
For this reason, as well as the fact effects are incorporated in a fresh way (not saying they’re spectacular; merely they were slightly new to this sub-genre), I truly feel Peli broke new, interesting ground with his found footage horror movie. Not only did it spawn a series of sequels, a whole franchise, Paranormal Activity – in a different way from its predecessors – had other filmmakers looking to do a low-budget horror almost copycatting everything about it.
They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery; in this case, I think it’s mostly about cashing in.
Finally, it’s the acting from Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston which truly got to me. I think Sloat did a good enough job, especially in terms of being the sceptical and doubting boyfriend; he isn’t completely ignorant and arrogant in his speech, mostly he brings this aspect across through his coy, annoyingly playful demeanour. He certainly acts like a bit of a douchebag, but I think that’s almost definitely the right way for Micah to seem, as a character – it brings out that doubt very clearly for all to see.
Above all else, it’s Featherston who sells this film from start to finish. I like the character herself; she’s been followed all her life, basically, by some kind of spirit, an entity. Not that it’s a new idea. It’s how Featherston plays the character, the innocence she always seems to display and this naive but concerned nature in her. While Katie is the one who believes in it all, there’s still this naivety about her in that she’s holding onto the innocent part of herself, even while this demon/spirit/entity has latched onto her and won’t leave her, or Micah, alone. The way Featherston performs is incredible, unbelievably actually in the final half hour. Once things start getting very intense and claustrophobic in their little house, Featherston does a perfect job portraying all the terror Katie is feeling; there’s one moment where she tells Micah she feels something in the hallway, and I honestly got a fright just out of the urgency in her voice, the look in her eyes. Amazing job and makes Paranormal Activity all the better for it; anyone else would probably not have been enough. Featherston pushed this film above a ton of other found footage out there with subpar acting and lazy characters.
With an undeniably horrifying final 15 minutes, I can definitely say this is a 4 out of 5 star film. There could’ve been a little more in certain parts, but overall this is an excellent modern horror. I’m not saying this will send you to bed cowering under the covers like when we were children. What I am saying is that Oren Peli did a good job directing this, as opposed to so many shaky useless found footage efforts, and he tried to instil the film with as much practicality (from plot to effects) as possible.
This is a slow burn type of horror film, in my opinion. It does well building up tension, in part that’s due to excellent actors, and in the end there’s a massively satisfying and creepy conclusion. Love the end and watching this for the first time since its release 8 years ago, I must admit I like the film more than I’d originally thought.