A young couple suspects that their house is haunted by a malevolent entity. They set up video surveillance to capture evidence of what happens at night as they sleep. Their surveillance and home videos have been edited into a 99-minute feature film.
Israeli-born director Oren Peli scratches his nails across some raw human fears in his suburban haunted house story Paranormal Activity. That his deceptively simple take on the old 'things-that-go-bump-in-the-night’ angle can so effectively induce such a foreboding sense of dread is not only testament to his skill, but also a potent reminder of what makes going to the movies such a unique experience.
Shooting from a reported budget of US$11,000 and filming entirely within the two storeys of his own San Diego home (sections of which he renovated to suit the production design of his film), Peli reduces everything in the film to most core, human elements – love, fear and the trust we put in our own two eyes. By doing so, the audience is unavoidably gripped – the packed auditorium squirmed, murmured and jumped as one during several key moments in the film.
Katie (Kate Featherstone) and Micah (Micah Sloat) are upwardly mobile young people who have moved in together for the first time. Theirs is a modern home – living and dining areas downstairs, with bedrooms and bathrooms at the top of a two-tiered staircase; a small but comfortable patio area and yard, and their relationship is playful and loving.
What aren’t so great are the nightly disturbances that plague them frequently. The visitations are a problem that Katie has encountered since childhood ('You could have told me that before we moved in", Micah deadpans), and they need to be dealt with in order to move on with their lives together.
To Peli’s credit, much of the film’s first half is spent on character definition and mood. The first evidence of supernatural activity is benign – keys are thrown to the floor, their bedroom door (which they keep open) sways slightly – and Micah dismisses a tardy psychic (Mark Friedrichs) for his lack of punctuality ('You would be able to predict that the traffic is going to be bad"). The psychic does not bring the news the couple wanted to hear, though. This is no simple haunting, nor the cheeky shenanigans of an impish spirit – it’s the work of a fixated demon, determined to capture Katie’s soul.
The disturbances gather pace and ultimately, turn violent. Doors slam; picture frames are smashed; after Micah lays talcum powder in the hall, white cloven-shaped footprints appear in the bedroom, captured on a night-vision camera.
We should be getting used to the 'found-footage’ ploy that Peli uses so well in Paranormal Activity. Ten years ago, Daniel Meyrick and Eduardo Sanchez become overnight sensations when their no-budget shocker The Blair Witch Project (1999) captured the demise of three doco-makers; both Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s Spanish-language [REC] (2007) and John Erik Dowdle’s shot-for-shot English-language remake Quarantine (2008) utilised found-footage 'wobbly-cam’ superbly; Matt Reeves’ big-budget Cloverfield (2008) did not.
But Peli goes a step further. His camera is the camera we use to record Christmas time family gatherings, our child’s first steps, some naughtiness in the bedroom. The handheld footage in Paranormal Activity is shot as we would shoot it – in our home. Peli has created the 'haunted home movie’, and it is supremely effective.
Sure, he borrows heavily from the last great modern haunted house film – Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1983). Fans will note that the kitchen bench and stools are carbon-copies from the Steven Spielberg-produced film; the swinging light-fixture is a well-known and oft-referenced image, as is the noisy, static-filled TV; Katie even mimics the late Dominique Dunne’s hilarious 'finger-gesture’ moment for great comic effect. And, all credit to Peli, it seems to have worked – Spielberg saw a copy of the film and recommended reshoots to the ending, which helped secure Peli a remake deal with Paramount (the film, shopped around at festivals in 2008, is an independently-acquired Icon title in Australia).
Above all else, Paranormal Activity is very scary, thanks in no small part to Featherstone and Sloat, who seem perfectly natural in their roles and with each other. This is especially true of Featherstone, who is a delightfully open presence when staring into the handheld camera Micah lugs around for most of the film. Don’t let the naysayers who may dismiss this as a 90-minute Youtube video sway you. The young couple’s (and our) exposure to the demonic forces at play in suburban San Diego is entirely believable and chillingly unforgettable.