Being a filmmaker myself when an $11,000 horror film gets wide distribution it demands my attention. The fear I had going into the theater is that I’m a huge, and jaded, horror film fan. I’ve seen too many horror films that are supposed to truly be scary that aren’t. If I hear a movie being compared to I Know What You Did Last Summer or the remake of The Ring at least then I know not expect anything good. This film has been constantly compared to The Blair Witch Project which could be a good thing or a bad thing. With that said the grass roots marketing and hype from all of the right places on the interwebs was starting to take hold of me.
A young couple being terrorized by “paranormal activity” decides to begin videotaping their experiences in hopes of finding a way to make them stop. The entire film is assembled from those recordings. The filmmakers even go to the trouble of answering those filmmaker questions in the plot such as having the husband record to his laptop for overnight shoots rather than to a tape. There’s no way one tape would capture an entire night of recording but if the camcorder were hooked to a laptop the camera could certainly record all night. Also, when the two of them need to react to what happened in the house while they were sleeping the husband or wife would videotape the playback on the computer screen, good stuff.
So the film benefits from this home video look to the footage adding a layer of reality and aggressiveness that would normally fade in the 24 frames per second organic grain of film. These events feel like they were literally recorded by two regular people with their video camera. Also the characters aren’t instantly likable but they are instantly real. The wife grows to be sympathetic but the husband always comes off as a douche bag and he has to be to sell this story. Any real caring husband would have given up the videotaping as things progressively got more disturbing but this guy is an ass so it’s totally believable that he insisted on continuing to record regardless of how scary things got.
Within a scant few minutes the film makes you feel like a voyeur looking in on the life of a real couple. Just when the film borders on the mundane lives of a couple something happens to shake the two of them up and the audience at the same time. The film isn’t riddled with heavy handed CGI, ear piercing music stingers and fake out jump scares. Instead the film’s special FX and scares are as earthy as the shooting style of the film itself. Once things start happening the entire film is like a balled up fist waiting to punch. The couple continues to try and live their lives in the midst of everything that’s happening to them and you find yourself just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Also a title card at the beginning of the film informs in no uncertain terms how the film has to end so I found myself constantly waiting for that to happen and wondering just how it would happen. So, when things do occur, no matter how small they might be, they’re still intense.
Paranormal Activity is truly scary, it’s well acted, and it’s one of the most intense audience experiences I’ve had in years. There’s a few times in this film that it felt like there was no air left in the theater because every person in the room took a deep breath simultaneously. I enjoyed The Blair Witch Project when it hit theaters but it was a bit of a victim of its own hype where Paranormal Activity exceeds the hype in every way. Paranormal Activity owes its existence to The Blair Witch Project and The Last Broadcast but it’s not only an evolution of those two films it’s superior to them. I loved a film called The Entity when I was growing up and I believe Paranormal Activity owes a debt of gratitude to that classic Barbara Hershey film too. If you can still catch it in a theater do so because it’s easily one of the best films of the year and the best group experience you’re likely to have in a theater this year. It’ll be very interesting to see how this one does on home video.