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'Paranormal Activity' Invites Chill Shock of Nameless Fear

Fear of that which we don't understand is one of humanity's oldest shared nightmares, however when the ordinary becomes a vehicle for the inexplicable, the effect is particularly disturbing. This horror of the familiar turned frightening is at the thumping heart of Paranormal Activity, a nerve-popping occult thriller about a young couple whose modest suburban home is invaded by a hellish entity of unknown origin.
Directed by newcomer Oren Peli, the film stars Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston as a pair of cohabiting lovebirds appropriately named Micah (pronounced "Meeka") and Katie, who have recently moved into an apartment-like tract home in a treeless, sun-washed suburb of San Diego. Marriage likely won't be an option for the couple until Katie finishes her studies and Micah's day trading career catches fire. However, another reason to hold off on the nuptials might be the ominous, poltergeist-like phenomena that have dogged Katie like a bad penny ever since childhood. Things have been quiet in recent years, however since moving in with Micah, Katie has noted an uptick in the unusual. Water faucets are found to be running, and eerie scratching sounds are heard from within the walls. Fascinated by the implications, Micah buys a video camera in hopes of capturing evidence of paranormal activity.

When a psychic investigator (Mark Fredrichs) takes a tour of the house at Katie's request, he is vaguely alarmed. His field of expertise is communicating with dead people, however the spirit at Katie and Micah's appears to be something entirely different--as in, not human. That Fredrichs suspects the spirit to be a demon is their first hint this is nothing to be fussed with, yet fuss with it Micah does as he attempts to cajole and even provoke the entity into showing itself for the camera. A bad idea, as it turns out, that ultimately leads to the couple's harrowing, inexorable descent into a very bad place.

As Micah's tripod-mounted camera dutifully records the sleeping couple over a period of several nights, a door moves, a shadow sifts into the room, and the outer light flicks on and off, all to the tension-ratcheting roll of the video time-counter. Then come the frightful thumping sounds, and a spine-chilling episode in which a sleepwalking Katie stands staring at the sleeping Micah for several hours, her swaying body twitching eerily on the sped-up tape.

When the real shocks come, they are heart-stopping and honestly earned. During midnight screenings the response was galvanic. At the moment in which a strand of Katie's hair is tossed by the breath of an unseen horror, the shrieking audience all but came out of their seats. I prayed the bolts would hold.

As with The Blair Witch Project (1999), Paranormal Activity is told entirely through the lens of the protagonists' camera as they attempt to document the unfolding terrors. The two films are similar enough for Paranormal to be Blair Witch's suburban cousin--the two would make a great double-bill--however Paranormal never feels overly derivative in spite of the clear debt that it owes its predecessor. This demon comes from a different antechamber of hell.

The still-terrifying Blair Witch Project was the prototype for what The Los Angeles Times' John Horn dubbed the "found-video thriller." Paranormal Activity certainly fits the description, and with Time magazine having pronounced the film a "horror phenomenon," there's less a sense of deja vu than I told you so. Blair Witch wasn't a fluke, it was simply ahead of the curve. Just ask Matt Reeves, the guy who directed the blockbuster Cloverfield, which was nothing more than another found-video thriller with bigger budget and a much bigger antagonist.

Despite the success of Cloverfield, though, the found-video concept seems to work better with the more intimate horrors of a film like Paranormal Activity, where the disarming familiarity of "home video" conspires with the ordinariness of the characters and setting to render the supernatural terrors all the more frightening by comparison. The aesthetic limitations of the medium itself lend an air of claustrophobic horror. There is something nightmarish, for example, about video that's been shot in a darkened house with only a dim camera-mounted movie light such as Micah uses. Perspective is altered, and the boundaries of the frame fall quickly into grainy blackness. As the household electrics begin to transgress the usual rules of possibility and things begin to go bump in the night--rather loudly, usually downstairs--the grubby light on Micah's camera imbues his panicked forays into unlighted rooms with the expectant dread of an unwatched crime scene video. One strains to see beyond the narrow throw of the light as Micah claws through a set of clacking vertical blinds into the pitch-black back yard, where a gauzy glimpse of Katie sitting motionless in the backyard swing sends the hackles up on our necks.

The moment is one of several in which Paranormal Activity communicates the chill shock of nameless fear without the use of gore, shock-cuts, or elaborate effects. That Peli's film is able to ramp up the terror to the extent that it does with only the slightest of contrivances is what makes this a truly great ghost story.

"The Haunted History of Paranormal Activity," The Los Angeles Times
"Paranormal Activity: a Horror Phenomenon," Time
"Paranormal Activity" official website