About halfway through Paranormal Activity, a twentysomething guy (Micah Sloat) who’s investigating weird happenings that scare his live-in girlfriend (Katie Featherston), decides to ask the possible supernatural culprit why it’s being so coy. “Hey,” he yells, “we haven’t had anything interesting happen for a while!”
It’s a funny line, because the audience feels the same way. Made for $15K with a crew of four in the first-time director’s own house, this low-rent sensation has already grossed nearly $63 million, thanks in no small part to viral marketing that bills it as the scariest movie ever. When I saw Paranormal Activity, some people in the nearly full theater were so primed to scream that they jumped the gun when nothing scary was happening. Other watchers were grumbling much like protagonist Micah, a frat-boyish day trader who can’t believe his girlfriend’s freaking out because her keys mysteriously fell off the counter.
Fell? Slid? Jumped? It happened while they were sleeping, so who knows? To solve the enigma, Micah purchases a video camera, which quickly becomes an end in itself. Like that student filmmaker in The Blair Witch Project, that kid in Cloverfield, and that camera crew in Quarantine, he seems to think that if you can frame something in a viewfinder, it can’t hurt you. Like all of them, he learns otherwise.
The people griping during Paranormal Activity are right — it’s boring. Here’s the thing: If you’re susceptible to its particular brand of suggestion, it’s also scary. And without the boring parts — all the minutiae of life with this bickering San Diego couple — there would be no scary parts.
In criticizing the Saw films and other blood-soaked spectacles, people often say that what’s scariest in movies is what you don’t see. But that’s not quite true — it’s what you half see, glimpsing it from the corner of your eye.
Maybe the fear of the half-seen is a survival reflex from the days when we were always scanning the mouths of our caves for toothy predators. Whatever it is, writer-director Oren Peli exploits it brilliantly. Because Katie complains of noises and nightmares, Micah rigs his camera to monitor the couple’s bed while they’re sleeping. Over the course of a few weeks, mostly nothing happens. Uneventful hours get fast-forwarded. But whenever the movie returns to real time, we strain to catch unusual shadows and movements in the edges of the frame. Then there’s a recurrent bass rumble that could be a distant truck or a low-grade earthquake …. or not.
Basically, all that separates Paranormal Activity from a basic-cable docudrama about haunting is that it’s fiction, which gives Peli a license to up the ante and totally dick the viewer around. He does so with aplomb. Whenever he starts letting things get too Hollywood, though, the film loses its grip. One scene involving a Ouija board wouldn’t be out of place in a straight-to-DVD demonic-possession flick. Neither actor is quite up to the challenges of the film’s final scenes, but an empty room and some sound effects do most of the work.
The people who are likely to lose their shit at Paranormal Activity are those who are less freaked by anything “interesting” a supernatural stalker does on screen than by their own anxieties about what it could do. “You have absolutely no control,” Katie tells Micah, who still thinks he can research or possibly punch his way to a victory over the unknown. “Get over it.” He can’t, of course, because accepting that you can’t control what happens in your own home is like accepting the eventuality of your own death — a daunting prospect. Maybe denial is the true spirit of Halloween.