Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat play Katie and Micah, a cute young couple from San Diego. She is a college student and he is a day trader. They have been together for three years, but have only recently made the decision to live together, and have moved into a nice, decidedly unspooky house.
Nevertheless, the couple has experienced some unexplained events in their new house — creepy sounds, objects that have been moved — that they think might be paranormal activity, and Micah decides to set up a camera in their bedroom to film them while they sleep and hopefully capture the ghoul in action. Unfortunately for them, they succeed.
Haunted house films often include scenes in which experts or priests are called in to help, but in Paranormal Activity the psychic (Mark Fredrichs) is almost comically unhelpful, basically scurrying away from the house’s bad vibes immediately.
However, it’s in these scenes when we find out that Katie has been having these experiences periodically for her entire life. The psychic tells her that it isn’t a ghost, that haunts a specific place, but a demon, and that it is after her. If they leave the house, the demon will follow them. In Poltergeist, the family at least had the option of getting out of the house and never looking back, but Katie has no such luck. A lot of horror films (Blair Witch included) involve characters lost in an unknown, hostile territory, but here the evil is a personal violation, invading Katie and Micah’s house, their bed. And what’s scarier than that?
Paranormal Activity is never a ripoff, but the movie owes a bit to other found-footage films such as The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, as well as to other haunted house movies. There are the standard scenes in which the escalating ordeal takes a toll on the characters’ relationship, and the scenes in which the character holding the camera is mercilessly berated for doing so.
In all these films you also have some initial scenes in which we get to know the characters before all the crazy stuff starts happening. In Cloverfield, the characters were so bland and uninteresting that the early scenes were almost unbearable. Luckily, though, here Micah and Katie are actually quite involving characters, and we come to engage with them, instead of merely tolerating them so the demon will have someone to terrorize. Katie is under siege here, targeted specifically, and Featherston’s performance is completely honest as we watch her gradually break down over the course of the film.
Micah is sympathetic as well, but his behavior is often more problematic. The haunting is serious business for Katie, but Micah treats it like a big joke at first, and is excited to get everything on film. The psychic says not to engage or provoke the demon, but Micah insists that he should get a Ouija board and say hi. He seems to be under the impression that if he puts his mind to it he can solve their little ghost problem. I think at one point he actually says, “I’ll take care of this right now.” That sort of macho posturing rarely works with living people, let alone supernatural entities.
The film isn’t “the scariest movie ever made,” like the advertisements would have you believe, but it is really quite creepy. Even with an 86-minute running time, the movie drags occasionally, but it very adeptly builds a growing sense of dread that escalates to some very intense scares by the end of the film. Things start out small, with a door closing by itself or a chandelier swinging, but they very quickly build to real terror.
The movie’s real genius is the repeated shot of the couple’s bedroom, which shows their bed on the right side of the frame, and on the left side a doorway, behind which lies a hallway and a staircase down into God knows what. Every time Katie and Micah go to bed and we see that static shot of their bedroom, the audience tenses up, afraid of what might happen. And each daytime segment feels like a triumph for having made it through the previous night. That is, until even the daylight stops being a protection.
Paranormal Activity basically builds scares out of shadows, loud noises and the anticipation of the same, but it does so masterfully. It’s a testament to the movie’s staying power that as I sit here writing this, alone in the middle of the night, I’m looking over my shoulder and listening for odd noises. If I disappear without a trace, with only this review left behind, at least you’ll know what got me.