I love horror movies, and I especially enjoy a well-made ghost story. Unfortunately, most “scary” movies fall far short of being scary. We’ve had a glut of terrible Hollywood ghost stories recently, so I’ve had to slog through a large amount of garbage to cull out the occasional gem. However, with Paranormal Activity we have that rarest of films: one that is filled with creepy atmosphere and full of tension, slowly building towards a genuinely scary climax.
A young couple, Katie and Micah, are living a seemingly idyllic life when a series of strange occurrences start happening. Micah decides to purchase a video camera to document these occurrences and to attempt to solve the mysterious goings-on. They invite a psychic over who advises them that they aren’t dealing with a run-of-the-mill ghost, but a more malevolent entity, possibly a demon. Of course, Micah doesn’t take all this stuff seriously, dismissing the psychic as a fraud and intentionally antagonizing the entity. Against the psychic’s advice and Katie’s wishes, Micah obtains an Ouija board and attempts to contact the entity. As the haunting continues to escalate, Katie becomes increasingly paranoid and Micah remains skeptical. By the time they both realize they are in over their heads, it is too late.
Paranormal Activity is famous, of course, because it is one of a relatively few truly independent films that transcended its bare-bones roots and gained widespread distribution and popularity, by both audiences and critics. Filmed for somewhere around $15,000, director Oren Peli’s film has an extremely limited cast (literally a half-dozen) and an even more limited location—it was filmed entirely inside the director’s own home. While this sounds somewhat limiting, Peli utilizes these factors to create a truly frightening and claustrophobic re-envisioning of the classic ghost story.
Filmed entirely in cinema verite style much like another huge indie hit, The Blair Witch Project, the film is unique in that it doesn’t start or end like a typical film. There is no movie logo at the beginning, there are no opening credits, and there are no closing credits, lending the film an extra dose of creepy realism as if the viewer is watching a documentary instead of a piece of fiction.
It’s been awhile since I’ve been really creeped out by a film (2007’s The Orphanage did that for me) and there are some truly hair-raising scenes that will stay with the viewer for a while. The film comes with two endings. I actually prefer the theatrical ending, which is not just scary but has a bit of a shock scare with it as well; this is a bit surprising to me because the alternate ending is more open-ended, allowing the viewer to decide whether the events were real or if Katie is mentally disturbed. The theatrical ending is cut-and-dry—the haunting is real. But while I normally like the open-ended denouements, I think I like the theatrical ending better because it seemed to be better payoff for me because it was much scarier.
Regardless of which ending you may prefer, Paranormal Activity is a must-see film if you like atmospheric and scary films that rely on tension instead of blood and gore. But be warned: make sure all your lights are working because you will probably prefer them on when you go to bed….