Though 1999’s Blair Witch Project is widely recognised as the first “found footage” film (I’d argue that Cannibal Holocaust from 1980 beats that by nearly two decades), the floodgates for this sub-genre were well and truly opened by the 2007 release by first-time director and writer Oren Peli of Paranormal Activity.
The conceit of this sub-genre is that we are watching is an actual recording of events captured by, more often than not, the characters within the story though this can also include CCTV, interviews and the like.
Shot in his own home for a budget of around $15,000, the film depicts a period of around three weeks in the home of Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherstone), a young couple on the verge of engagement.
Believing that she’s been the victim of a haunting by a dark entity most of her life and, that said entity is still haunting her to this day, Micha purchases a video camera and sets out to record any activity on film.
And that’s it!
This is all you really need to know going on as we see events unfold through the eyes of the sceptical Micah and the non-judgmental eye of the camera. It’s a simple premise that works in the films favour.
Katie, a true believer in the supernatural, is unhappy with Michas blasé attitude towards, what for her, are very real and terrifying experiences. Even a visit from a psychic, Dr Fredichs (Mark Fredrichs) who warns them against attempting to communicate with this entity which, he states, is feeding off “Negative energy” doesn’t deter Micha at all.
We move into classic haunted house territory as objects are captured on film moving on their own, electrical disturbances begin occurring and we hear footsteps, voices and growls from no obvious source.
There’s no score in this film whatsoever apart from what we hear in the recorded footage we’re witnessing which is a nice touch and enables us to buy into the fiction a lot easier. (We know it’s a film but the more tactics employed to imply it isn’t the better in this type of movie)
On top of that, most of the dialogue was improvised with the two principal characters working off plot beats but allowing to choose how they hit them. It, once again, adds to the believability of what we’re seeing.
Something that became a regular feature in this series (and many other similar films) was the placement of a static camera to catch images either when the protagonists are asleep or away from a particular location.
Here, we have Micha leaving the camera running at night in their bedroom as they sleep, its placement allowing us a view incorporating, not only their bedroom but the hallway outside.
Here, for me, is when the film works best.
Paranormal Activity isn’t loaded with jump scares (unlike a lot of its contemporaries) but succeeds in instilling a high level of tension in us, the viewer, with a constant sense of nervous anticipation.
You find yourself, especially in the static night shots, covering every inch of what’s on the screen with your eyes…..waiting.
Waiting for something to happen. Knowing it will but not knowing when is one of the films major strengths.
Not saying there aren’t any jump scares but they’re not prolific and it’s the expectation that gets those hairs on the back of your neck rising.
When Katie sleepwalks and stands at the end of the bed looking at Micha for hours it’s creepy. (At least for me it was). There are lots of moments like that in the film as the malevolent entity continues to make its presence known.
A low frequency noise accompanies the imminent arrival of the presence which again is a simple and effective way to un-nerve us.
Many films dealing with hauntings and the like often have us audiences questioning why the antagonists just wouldn’t up and leave at the first signs of undoubtedly supernatural goings on.
It’s explained here that the demonic being had latched on to Katie in some way. Moving home would make no difference. Another creepy thought.
As the “activity” amps up and begins to get more “hands on” the film builds to its climax.
Two versions of the film exist and, in this case, unlike many others I’ve seen, I’d recommend the Theatrical Cut (which has the ending that Steven Spielberg himself recommended over the two versions he saw).
Amassing nearly $200 million worldwide it was inevitable that this film would get a sequel and indeed, we got five further entries in this franchise and, though some are watchable (The fifth entry Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is my favourite of the bunch) it is this first entry that I would recommend to any horror fan, especially those who prefer things that go bump in the night to more visceral films.
I watched this film for the first time on my own, in the dark with headphones and it legitimately got under my skin.
The found footage sub-genre is much maligned for good reason in some cases (Who found the footage? Why are they still recording? etc) but if you can put aside your low expectations you might just end up agreeing with me.
Paranormal Activity is, simply put, an effectively good “scary” movie.