Here we go again with another filmmaker with no money who thinks he has the next Blair Witch Project. The main difference being this film is actually pretty effective. I’ve never been a fan of Blair Witch and sometimes wish it was never made. Witch has given us endless shitty rip-offs in which any schmuck with a camera thinks they can make “the next big thing.” What these Orson Welles wannabes don’t realize is that no matter if your budget is $200 or $20 million, if there’s no talent behind the camera then you’re going to end up with a shitty film. This is where Paranormal Activity (which is said to have been made for $15,000 and has earned over $100 million at the U.S. box office alone) differs; writer-director Oren Peli has some chops and a pretty damn good eye at setting up shots and building suspense.
The story is extremely simple and basic. Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) move into a new house and over time begin to experience more and more weird shit. I like that we enter the story already in progress and that the ghost is already established. This really helped me buy into the gimmick that this is a real couple with a real problem. We meet Micah as he’s playing with a new camera he bought earlier that day. He plans on using it to try and document some of the weird shit that’s been happening. Everything we see in the movie is filmed on that camera Micah bought; there’s no other cameras in the house. And the only thing we really learn about either character’s backstory is that Katie has been suffering from some kind of ghostly presence since she was 8 yrs old. Apparently whatever this “thing” is seems to follow her around wherever she goes, and now its in their new home. They call in a psychic, played by Mark Fredrichs, who tries to help them as best he can but at best he only confirms that they do indeed have some kind of presence. He does tell them that it isn’t a ghost in their house but is something more demonic. Well hey; thanks for the help there psychic dude!!
The entire film takes place inside the house, has a total of 4 people in the cast, and is seen only from the perspective of the camera. During the day we watch Katie and Micah as they try and figure out what the “thing” is and how they can get rid of it. At night Micah sets up the camera in the corner of the bedroom to capture any odd shit. It’s these scenes at night which are the most effective in the flick. Every night the demonic presence gets more and more bold and destructive. There is even strong evidence that the “thing” is possessing Katie at night. Everything keeps building and building until you know the climax is going to be scary and brutal and not end well for our couple.
Katie and Micah do really great jobs here. They are completely believable as a “real” couple (I never for a second bought that the cast in Blair Witch weren’t actors), and their dialogue and actions are realistic. They make this film work!! There’s only 2 other actors here; Fredrichs, the psychic, and Amber Armstrong as Amber, Katie’s best friend. Amber and the psychic are in the movie maybe 8-10 minutes (combined time), but Fredrichs was very convincing as a real person and not an actor playing a role. But where this film really succeeds is in the development of our main couple. At first Micah doesn’t believe Katie and her history of paranormal activity. So he buys the camera, I believe, to prove to Katie that there’s nothing odd going on. But after a few nights of lights going on and off by themselves and heavy footsteps coming up the stairs and Katie standing by the side of the bed for 3 hours at a time in a trance-like state, Micah starts to believe. We watch as the couple slowly sinks deeper and deeper into paranoia due to only getting like 2-3 hours of sleep each night. And each night that goes by results in more intense activity from their “visitor”.
I’m not gonna give any of the ending away, but there are a few different versions of Paranormal Activity floating around out there. The DVD offers one alternate ending that may increase the blood factor but which didn’t have the same impact (pardon my pun) as the one they went with for the theatrical release. One pretty interesting scene in the original version (which was removed) is some video footage that Micah found online of a possessed girl chewing off parts of her own body. It sounds like a pretty cool scene but really doesn’t fit into the tone and atmosphere Peli created. I think it was a smart idea leaving that out.
The atmosphere Peli creates is nothing short of intense. There’s no doubt there’s something in that house, and by the half way mark you know that whatever it is has some kind of connection to Katie. You find yourself hoping that Micah realizes this before its too late. Admittedly I didn’t see this one in the theater and I’m both glad and angry that I didn’t. I’m glad I didn’t because there’s not much going on here to be considered a feature film. The entire idea of the film is based on a gimmick (“found footage”, real images of a haunting, etc …) that for me wouldn’t have been as satisfying in the theater. But I do think I would have jumped more had I seen this on a big screen at my local Alamo Drafthouse. But I tell ya, towards the end when the “thing” drags Katie out of bed and down the hallway, I got chills up and down my spine and all the hair stood up on my arms. It was a creepy and very well-shot scene. And Peli’s decision to not use any music and have no soundtrack was a smart move. That helped me buy into the “found footage” gimmick and it also helped with the tense atmosphere. This is a pretty fun and effective movie that gets under your skin a few times. Check it out.
Afterwards: I recently read an article saying that Peli won’t be returning to direct Paranormal Activity 2. The article went on to throw around the names of some people being considered: Brian De Palma, Brad Anderson, and Greg McLean. All 3 are great choices and all 3 would deliver very different films. But the directorial job has gone to Tod Williams. Just imagine the killer job Brad Anderson could have done with this material? Think of the atmosphere he developed in Session 9 (2001) and there wasn’t even a ghost or demon in it. Just think of what he could have done if he had a supernatural presence to play with!! What do you think?
Director: Oren Peli (and writer)
Plot: 3 out of 5 stars
Gore: 0 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Scott Shoyer