Paranormal Activity reviewed

The degree to which you enjoyed 1999’s The Blair Witch Project will probably determine how much you appreciate current horror hit Paranormal Activity. You see, out of all the films in the past decade that have been shot in the hand-held video camera style, and pretended to be found real-life footage – including Cloverfield, REC and Quarantine – Paranormal Activity is most reminiscent of Blair Witch in terms of tone and pacing.

Shot for just $15 000, Paranormal Activity is an independent film that has gone on to become the most profitable film of all time. It’s also essentially a 2-man show, with unknown actors Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat turning in solid, appropriately credible performances as likeable young couple Katie and Micah.

Since childhood Katie has experienced intermittent hauntings, as an apparently sinister entity has followed her from home to home. Now that she’s moved in with her boyfriend the paranormal experiences – which take the form of flickering lights, inexplicable noises, moved personal items, and the opening and closing of doors – are flaring up again in the couple’s suburban San Diego house. While Katie wants to tackle the problem with psychics, Micah develops an obsession with using camera equipment to record the events so he can find a logical explanation for what is happening. This, however, provokes the entity further.

What becomes immediately apparent with Paranormal Activity is that it’s a refreshing change from the usual horror films foisted upon cinemagoers. It’s thoughtful, character-focused and doesn’t rely on overblown special effects wizardry to get a reaction from the audience. Some of the film’s biggest scares are as a result of a single noise, or something as simple as a shadow, or handprint captured in talcum powder.

Viewers concerned about motion sickness will be pleased to know that Paranormal Activity is similarly restrained in terms of its camera work. There’s little to no dashing around to create disorientating visuals that capture a sense of panic. For 90% of the time the camera is set on a stationary tripod, ready to capture the scare moments that come out of nowhere.

And these scare moments certainly increase in number. It’s hardly surprising but as the film progresses the paranormal activity escalates, and Katie and Micah become increasingly snappish towards one another as stress and lack of sleep wear them down. This is where Paranormal Activity is strongly reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project. It’s not frantic. It’s not the fun rollercoaster thrillfest of REC or Cloverfield. The film keeps itself subtle, moderated and mostly realistic as the tension builds. At least until the very end.

In fact Paranormal Activity’s only major drawback is its ending. The movie inevitably loses some momentum towards its conclusion, and the filmmakers attempt to compensate by inserting a clichéd cliffhanger ending. They do this instead of rounding off events with something suitably dark and ambiguous. This sacrifice of subtlety is disappointing, especially when you read on Wikipedia of alternate, far more suitable endings that the film utilised at different stages.

Paranormal Activity is definitely one of the best horror films of the year, and it’s certain to terrify many, many viewers in the years to come when they watch it alone in the dark at home. It’s a pity though about the cop-out Hollywood ending. And it’s an especial pity that Paranormal Activity has been overhyped to the extent that it has. Very few films can live up to the title, “The scariest movie of all time.” And like its genre predecessor The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity will be struggling with that moniker for a long time.


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