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Film | Paranormal Activity (2009)

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Paranormal Activity movie poster“It’s not a ghost. What is it?”

Oren Peli’s first stab at film-making is a fun, truly frightening experience in the style of The Blair Witch Project.

Meet Micah and Katie. They’re your normal (if not, annoying) young couple, living together and “engaged to be engaged”. But something paranormal is happening to them – they’re being haunted by a malevolent spirit. Intent to capture said spirit on film, Micah purchases a hand-held camera to record movements in the house.

It’s this camera that tells the story. Each night they sleep, Micah sets up the camera in the bedroom, positioned (teasingly) to overlook the hallway. In their waking hours, it’s following their movements. Much of the non-still filming is done by Micah.

As the story develops, the paranormal activity gradually increases and it’s discovered that the spirit is not house-bound but following Katie. Micah does little to help as he actively encourages the spirit into their lives even more. Katie is, of course, less enthusiastic. All of this — the spooky paranormal activity and the tension between Micah and Katie — is captured on hand-held.

What we end up with is an edited compilation of this footage as “authorised by the families of Micah and Katie”.

Paranormal Activity is Blair Witch remixed and brought behind the picket fence and into the bedroom. Like the 1999 cult hit, Paranormal Activity purports to be real-life footage told exclusively from the POV of the story’s subjects, who are now no longer around to tell the story. It keeps very much in line with that movie’s cinéma vérité technique and way of unfolding the story. Even the film’s production, costing just $15,000 and using techniques like retroscripting, was very similar.

But Paranormal Activity is no poor cousin to Blair Witch. It’s no cheap rip off. It’s a fresh film that stands its own ground surprisingly well. It does fall short, though, on character. Blair Witch was more than fright. It was a unique and amazing window into human personality as it is gradually torn apart by fear and how fear affects relationships.

Tension certainly builds between Micah and Katie, especially as Micah pushes the proverbial envelope in encouraging the spirit, despite the obvious threat to Katie. But it’s nothing like the rawness of human fear famously exposed on camera by Heather Donohue in her monologue. In fact, Micah’s final (and critical) concession was pretty lame given the threat at hand. There wasn’t quite that same sense of crossing a boundary of accepting a terrible and unknown fate. A little too Mad About You.

The horror, though, is certainly all there, and in a perfectly prosaic domestic setting.

It’s no surprise that after just a few film festival showings, this independent film was so quickly snapped up by Paramount. And for something that cost them $300,000, the movie has certainly delivered a grand return. According to one source, Paranormal Activity is one of the most profitable films ever made, second only to … you guessed it, Blair Witch.

Related articles
» Paramount hints at sequel to Paranormal Activity (LA Times)
» Interview with director, Oren Peli (Cinematical)

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Written by Darren Smith

28 November 2009 at 2:38 pm

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