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FILM: Paranormal Activity

Written by Marcus Campbell on November 27, 2009

Directed By Oren Peli
Starring Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat

Don’t believe the hype. Paranormal Activity isn’t the scariest film ever made, nor is it our generation’s The Exorcist as has been clamed by its promotional material. Instead it is a neat little independent thriller that takes its cues from the sacred institution of the American horror film. Made on the tiny budget of $15000, it has enjoyed massive success in the US, earning $22 million on its first weekend of release to only 200 theatres and more recently banking over $100 million in its native country alone. This sort of achievement can be attributed to some ingenious guerrilla marketing that painted this as the definitive horror experience, tempting people with grainy, ambiguously-strange camera footage that would start imaginations of terror racing. While Paranormal Activity might not provide all the scares that it promises, it will reward entry-level thrill seekers as well as fans of classic American horror.

A couple who live in an unexciting two-story house in suburban San Diego begin to record their lives on a video camera when they believe they are being haunted. Katie (Katie Featherston) believes she has been followed by a spiritual presence since childhood and is quick to bring in the psychic and keep a demonologist on speed dial. Micah (Micah Sloat) is a sceptic and a joker who uses his camera as a way of documenting the ‘cool’ activities of the paranormal presence that are at first harmless (The Blair Witch Project will come to mind). The camera rolls while they sleep, where doors are seen moving when there is no chance of a draft, lights turn on an off at random and sounds of inhuman voices can be heard. All of this is mocked by Micah as merely the behaviour of an ineffective ghost. Predictably the events get worse and the behaviour of the presence becomes more hostile, sending the couple crazy and unsettling their audience who get to see everything the camera captures.

The thrills of Paranormal Activity rely on its complete use of Micah’s handheld camera to create the fantasy of absolute realism. It feels like a home video gone wrong, firstly aligning you with the likable and believable relationship of Katie and Micah before unscripted events invade the sacred space of their bedroom. While comparisons to The Exorcist have been made, Paranormal Activity is more likely to bring to mind classics such as The Amityville Horror or Poltergeist as well as the J-horror masterpiece The Ring with their focus on the demonic home invasion as well as the evils of video technology. Apparently Americans think TV static is still scary after all these years, and that the use of talking boards or the burning of crosses are assumed symbolic gestures of the invitation of evil forces. The Australian reaction to this film will be fairly different from its U.S audience, as we won’t really empathise with their supposedly rich, well understood paranormal histories. We are more likely to laugh in parts where you’re not supposed to, especially if you abide by the film’s tagline that urges “Don’t see it alone”. Australians are less likely to take something seriously in any form of grouping.

But for those that can keep a hold of the illusion of realism enough to take Paranormal Activity seriously, there are individual scenes that are likely to stay with you for the first night after watching at least. A mere open bedroom door will send a little shiver down your spine. Or if you have a partner who sleepwalks, you may have a desire to sleep alone for a little while. You might even think twice about leaving your camera rolling in an empty room. For all its efforts, Paranormal Activity should be praised for its subtlety, something that has been long forgotten in the Hollywood horror film. Its slow-burning sense of dread will restrict your breathing no matter how seriously you take it, the best scares teasing expectations for as long as bearable and then rewarding those who can keep their eyes open. The problem is, the reward isn’t always as frightening as your imagination and this will leave many people flocking back to the big budget trash for a CGI fix. Now that’s a scary thought.

You’ll love this if: You enjoy your hand being squeezed so tight by your significant other that it leaves bruising for days.

You’ll hate this if: You believe Americans are too easily scared and take themselves way too seriously.

Paranormal Activity opens December 3rd in all good cinemas.

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