Written and Directed by Oren Peli (uncredited dialog by Micah Sloat, Katie Featherston and the cast)
A Paramount Picture
Starring: Micah Sloat (Micah); Katie Featherston (Katie); Mark Fredrichs (Dr. Fredrichs); Amber Armstrong (Amber)
When The Blair Witch Project was released in 1999, many in the film industry was hoping it would crash and burn. It didn’t. Although it did suffer a tremendous backlash due to the oversaturation of its ad campaign (and the more traditionally shot sequel didn’t do anything to help anybody’s careers), studio executives were finally forced to admit that, once again, they had been the last to spot a new money-making trend and that throwing money at a bad script (like the remake of The Haunting (1999)) is not always going to get you the returns you expected. The Blair Witch Project was the not the first film to ever use the “Found Footage” technique (Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) beat it by more than a decade and faux-documentary-style film had been prevalent for years, usually in comedy) but its popularity put it in the forefront of the imagination of the movie-going public and, with the advances of video technology, it became clear that anyone with a camera and editing equipment could make their own film right in their own home. There were bound to be imitators and, thankfully, some good films came out of it. During the next decade, horror fans would be treated to films like Cloverfield (2008), the Spanish film Rec (2007) (which would be remade in English as Quarantine (2008)) and the Australian film The Tunnel (2011). Not all the films were winners, but there were enough winners in the bunch to keep the Found Footage genre of horror going to the present day. Interestingly enough, one such film even became a successful franchise, stretching to five films. While I can’t speak for the sequels (as a rule, I rarely watch them), I can definitely recommend the film that started it all, Paranormal Activity.
Even though it was made in the post-Blair Witch world, where there isn’t a single member of the audience who might be tricked into believing that they are watching a real event, Paranormal Activity tries to out-do Blair Witch in the false reality department by not even including opening or closing credits; the only credit is a copyright card at the end of the film. Also like Blair Witch, the lead actors play fictional versions of themselves, using their own names (I often wondered if the reason why Heather, Josh and Mike didn’t have much of a post-Blair career is because casting directors thought that they had been killed in the woods). Found footage films need to be set up quickly, explaining who the characters are and what all the videotaping is about. Paranormal Activity quickly introduces us to the young couple of Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston). Young and upwardly mobile, Micah has dropped half a week’s pay on a professional video camera because things have been happening around the house that may be connected with something that Katie has only just recently confided in him; ever since she was eight years-old, she thinks there has been an unseen presence following her. As she tells Dr. Fredrichs (Mark Fredrichs), she thinks she being haunted by a ghost who has followed her from house to house (her childhood house burned down for unknown reasons and Katie thinks the ghost might have been the reason). The ghost doctor thinks the situation might be even more serious; Katie might be the victim of a demon. This obviously scares Katie but, unfortunately for the young couple, Micah finds it all fascinating.
It’s difficult to ascertain what exactly fuels Micah’s attitude towards the demon during the last twenty-one days of his life. He seems to be motivated by an almost child-like fascination with the occult mixed with an instinct to be over-protective; he takes an instant dislike to Dr. Fredrichs, making smart remarks at every opportunity (when told that negativity will make the situation worse, he replies to Katie, “I guess your mother can’t come to visit anymore.” Ha-Ha), makes Katie promise not to call the demon expert that Dr. Fredrichs recommended and continually says that, whatever happens, he’ll be the one to take care of it. His manhood has seemingly been threatened first by the presence of the demon and then by an expert who only wants to help. Micah doesn’t recognize the threat as something dangerous; his attitude towards the presence is more akin to his defending Katie from a drunken frat-boy at a bar rather than a creature from the pits of Hell. And although his initial plan to videotape the phenomena that goes on while they sleep make sense, it’s obvious that he’s getting a kick out of it all; he watches the tape the next morning and thinks it’s cool that the bedroom door swings on its own or that the sheets blow around by themselves. Katie, who’s been living with this since she was eight, isn’t at all fascinated. She just wants it to stop and the most important man in her life isn’t cooperating.
The centerpiece sequences of the film are the bedroom sequences; with only one exception (the smashing of Micah and Katie’s picture), all of the paranormal events take place at night. The film’s ace-in-the hole is that while audiences are forced to deal with “shaky-cam” footage through much of the film, the bedroom scenes are still. The camera is mounted, the scene is tinted a soft night-time blue, and all is quiet. A caption in the corner counts out the seconds and, little by little, something happens while Micah and Katie sleep; sounds from off in the house make their way towards the bedroom, the door subtly swings, and one night, Katie awakens, stands by the bed for hours (in a very creepy fast-forward shot) before sleepwalking downstairs and being found by Micah freezing on the porch swing, barely responsive. Reviewing the footage of these events the following day doesn’t help Katie’s mood at all. Katie Featherston gives a fine performance as she slowly becomes terrified and despondent and Micah is no help to her at all. His bravado, culminating in the use of an Ouija board – the very thing that Dr. Fredrichs told him not to do – is making things incalculably worse. Things get so bad that he is finally forced by Katie to give an apology straight to the camera, as if he were an eight year-old (which, emotionally, he is). It also doesn’t help when Micah finally reveals to Katie what’s behind all the bravado and excitement: resentment. During one scene, Micah defends his decision to tape everything and do things his way because he is upset that Katie never told him about her problems before. “Did you expect me to tell you this on our first date,” she asks, but Micah counters with that she should’ve told him at some point before they moved in together that the possibility existed that a demon might be moving in as well. He’s right, of course, but the girl is obviously suffering and heaping an extra dose of guilt on her isn’t going to help the situation.
The next two nights, events are brought to a head; the couple are awoken by loud noises and the bedroom door slamming shut. Their investigation reveals that Micah’s plan for physical evidence has succeeded beyond his expectations (and Katie’s desires). Powder on the floor has revealed footprints and the open attic door leads Micah to discover something that shouldn’t exist, a charred photograph of Katie as a child that was thought to have been lost in her family’s house fire many years before. In one moment Katie has her answer to her long-time mystery: the demon is almost definitely the cause of the fire and, more disturbingly, has had a keepsake of her all these years. The poor girl has finally seen enough and decides to call the recommended demonologist the following day but it is too late; the man is out of the country. A return visit from Dr. Fredrichs is aborted when the vibrations of the house abruptly chases him away. He tells them he can’t stay and that they can’t leave, the demon would only follow them, but then departs with an unconvincing promise to help them.
That night, Katie’s foot is grabbed by an unseen force while she sleeps and she is dragged screaming down the hallway. This is the money shot of the entire film and it becomes clear why Peli chose to shoot the film as a found footage film rather than as a conventional narrative: the steady, unbroken shot of Katie being dragged from the bed and down the hall is jaw-droppingly realistic and plays up on all the fears (particularly from the woman in the audience) one has of a predator who will never give up on his prey. The being that stalks Katie is patient, cunning and has no intention of going away. And the only one standing in its way (and not very effectively) is her posturing boyfriend who finally realizes that all the videotape in the world isn’t going to deter it. Katie was right when she said that it wanted Micah to find its footprints on the floor; it’s not shy and there’s nothing they can do to dispel it. The following morning, Micah finds bite marks on Katie’s side and, even though Dr. Fredrichs says it will do no good, he decides that they should move to a motel. But Katie demurs, dreamily saying that she thinks they’ll be alright. But is it truly her who says that? Is that a smile on her face during that last shot before the final night? Does the demon have something in mind that a more public setting like a hotel would’ve spoiled?
This is followed by the final night and if you thought the sight of poor Katie being dragged down the hallway was shocking, just wait until you see what the police will find when they finally arrive. The shocking moment of the final night, when Micah’s body is flung into the camera, knocking it askew, is a defiant act of killing two pests with one shoe: Micah has spent the entire film goading the presence, believing he could beat it and generally disrespecting an entity that (as we have just witnessed) could fling him across the room like a ragdoll. And when Micah wasn’t watching, his camera was. Although I cannot see how the demon could have possibly seen Micah or his camera as a threat in any way (considering Katie’s assertion that what the camera sees is what the demon wants it to see), it isn’t hard to imagine that this entity from the flaming pits must be getting a bit bored with this ridiculous mortal and his camera and, with Micah finally scared enough to want to take Katie to a hotel, thought it might be best to get him out of the way. The game, in effect was over. Possibly it was ending when Dr. Fredrichs suggested bringing a demonologist in for help, but Micah forced Katie to put it off and (possibly feeling threatened by arrival of someone who could dispel it) it was time to lay the last card on the table.
Paranormal Activity is a good film, spooky and shocking in many places, and gives us a couple of good naturalistic performances (especially from Katie Featherston, whose descent into fear and hopelessness is as realistic as Ellen Burstyn’s in The Exorcist (1973)). The film was expanded into a franchise of apparently varying quality but, as a believer in the rule of the number of times that lightning can strike a specific point, it is probably unnecessary to venture further than its maiden voyage. Paranormal Activity, despite being one of many Found Footage Films, stands alone as a genuinely frightening film.