Screenwriter: Oren Peli
Starring: Micah Sloat, Katie Featherston, Mark Fredrichs
Running time: 85 mins
Filmed almost three years ago for a grand total of US$15,000 and languishing in distribution hell until now, Paranormal Activity has scared its way into the record books as the most profitable film ever after storming the US box office last month. Relying on simple 'bump in the night' style thrills rather than the usual procession of CGI beasties, it's one of the most intense and spine-chilling cinematic experiences ever... but only if you suspend your disbelief and actively tap into what you see and hear unfold.
Oren Peli's terrific film clearly owes a great deal to both the claustrophobic premise and guerilla filmmaking techniques of The Blair Witch Project, transplanting the terrain of fear from a forest tent to a suburban house. Shot entirely on a camcorder wielded by a young couple trying to capture evidence of a 'haunting' in their abode, the central conceit is that their footage has been recovered by the police and assembled into its current form with the permission of the families. The tale starts off in a deceptively mundane manner, but gradually builds into shriek-inducing terror once the 'entity' makes its presence felt in more explicit ways. With the film being set in America, there's no chance of even an ASBO being slapped onto the spooky being.
Unknown actors Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat are suitably naturalistic and credible as the increasingly troubled protagonists, who are also called Katie and Micah in a bid to achieve some Blair Witch style faux-authenticity. Sloat, in particular, shines not only amidst the disturbances as a determined man trying to defend his house from an unknown threat, but through the moments of light relief he provides with various amusing quips.
The camerawork and editing are both vital to the movie's power. The recurrent static shot of the couple's upstairs bedroom at night, as Micah seeks to document any creepy happenings while they sleep, is destined to become as iconic and spoofed as Blair Witch's Heather Donahue being all spooked and snotty up close in her tent. The stillness of the fixed shot, which covers several night’s worth of footage, forces the viewer to heighten their senses and listen out for any little sound and scan every nook and cranny of the room for any signs of an ethereal presence. The timing of such moments, with all the dull bits fastforwarded in front of our eyes, is pure instinctive genius by director Peli.
Outside of the bedroom and downstairs, the rawness of the handheld camera and frequent jump cuts lend a jarring and uneasy feel to the story that removes us further from any comfort zone. Whether Paranormal Activity manages to whip you into a near catatonic state of high anxiety depends on your willingness to immerse yourself in the environment along with Katie and Micah. It's probably best watched alone in the middle of the night for maximum effect, as cinema crowds often tend to have a couple of morons present whose constant giggling and nattering whips those nearby out of this required immersion into the story.
A simple idea executed with no frills, Paranormal Activity taps into our primal fears of the unknown to provide a procession of increasingly nervewracking and frenzied moments of terror. Cut off any distractions, glue your eyes and ears to the screen and prepare to be scared silly. There's no doubt that sales in bungalows will soar in the forthcoming months - a testament to the film's unrelenting effectiveness.
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