In Which Things Go Bump In the Night

10/14/2009 4:00 AM |

Paranormal Activity
Directed by Oren Peli

Paranormal Activity is a trend-bucker: rather than trade in horror’s presently fashionable buckets of blood, this low-budget, lo-fi debut from writer-director Peli returns horror to its purest essence: it provokes a Times Square theater’s worth of “holy shit”s and “what the fuck”s through the simplest manipulations of form. Creaking doors, heavy footfalls, passing shadows and rustling sheets—all captured by a punishingly motionless camera—trigger the seat squirming here, the digging of the fingernails into the elbow rests, the tightened embraces of jolted couples.

Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat play a young couple, recently moved in together, that experiences eerie shit at night: the result, we soon find out, of a demon that has been haunting Katie since girlhood. (Unlike other haunted house movies, then, it doesn’t matter whether the couple leaves or not: the demon will simply follow them. Neat narrative trick, that.) The film plays out, like The Blair Witch Project—to which it has been frequently compared—in grainy video: we’re watching Micah’s roughly month-long document of their lives. By day, he films snippets of he and his girlfriend’s arguments and expository discussions; by night, he leaves the camera on a tripod, running in the corner of the bedroom, in order to capture anything weird that might happen. Lucky for us (not so much for she and him), a whole lot of weird stuff does occur.

Peli plays a thrilling game of one-upmanship: each security cam-esque night scene is one bit creepier than the last: the first night, keys fall off a counter; the next, a door moves by itself; after that, a deep, roaring growl rises from the ground floor. And so on. The daytime scenes in between serve only as respites from the inevitable witching-hour horrors. Like A Nightmare on Elm Street, much of the fear lies in the inevitability of night and the necessity of sleep, because bad things happen when the lights go off. The pay-offs to the bedtime scenes are usually no more than tawdry shocks, but the built-up suspense is earned: Peli knows how to manipulate his images and storytelling in order to make anticipation the scariest part. Or, really, Peli’s coup is the lack of manipulation: without breaking takes or moving the camera, the director subjects the audience to the claustrophobia of the steady frame—to spatiotemporal captivity—forcing it to wait, knowing it soon must confront whatever boo he has prepared, sure to be more startling than the last.

But Paranormal Activity isn’t just about thrills, cheap and otherwise. The demon business naturally puts a strain on the couple’s relationship, as does Micah’s refusal to stop documenting it all on DV. Conspicuously, the haunting seems a metaphor for the challenges young couples face in building successful relationships—for the things that come between them. A psychic (Mark Fredrichs) that the couple calls in notes that the demon, ahem, “feeds off negative energy.” Micah uses the camera as a defense mechanism, as a way to place himself at a remove and avoid having to confront the problem head on. We use cameras, images, film and video to escape real life, Peli suggests. (“Let’s watch a movie,” Katie says one night. “I don’t want to go to sleep yet… ’cause I’m scared.”) In a healthy relationship, people confront their “demons” head-on. When they don’t, relationships fall apart. Or people die. And in Paranormal Activity, that’s essentially the same thing.

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