It only took one million online demands for the independently produced “Paranormal Activity” to be distributed to theaters nationwide, but it has finally arrived. And boy was it worth it.
Very few horror films leave you with the kind of chilling sense of terror that Oren Peli’s writing and direction produced here. Studios spend millions on horror features with famous actors, but Peli’s film succeeds with two unknown actors who even use their own names, and the overarching sense of realism produced makes the film far more horrifying than a film like, say, “The Stepfather” (see Tyler Anthony’s review on page 2A). The film’s realism depends on these unknown actors; it adds to the cinema-verite style the film goes for and achieves.
“Paranormal” opens with a young couple beginning to chronicle, via videocamera, the supernatural occurrences they’ve been noticing in their suburban home, a far cry from the dark, ominous haunted-house type setting of your usual horror flick.
Katie (Katie Featherston) believes she has been haunted by some sort of ghostly presence since childhood, and her “engaged to be engaged” boyfriend, Micah (Micah Sloat), in an attempt to humor and reassure her, decides to set up a videocamera in their house to uncover the truth. They even hire a psychic for a consult.
What’s great about Peli’s film is that it doesn’t depend on gory corpses or decapitated victims to produce scares. In fact, the only reason the movie is rated R is for language, and even that wasn’t grotesquely graphic. A few frightened “fucks” here and there are hardly noticeable, because the audience is screaming the words along with the protagonists as the frightening circumstances unfold.
The most tantalizing scare tactic used throughout the film is the recurrence of the nighttime footage. When the entire audience is groaning at the start of each new bedroom scene, you know you’ve struck a nerve in a great way.
It’s like this: Being scared isn’t about what you see; it’s about what you don’t see. And Peli crafted his film with this in mind. The sound effects — screams, thuds and creaking floors — are truly terrifying, and the inexplicable physical evidence only adds to it. Also, the viewer sees nothing more than what the protagonists view themselves, so you can truly feel the anxiety they are experiencing.
Slowly but surely, the film creeps forward, building on the suspense and compounding the dread. Every second becomes more intense and terrifying until you can hardly stand it anymore, and when it’s all finally over, you’re left with nothing but a haunting and credit-less black screen.
When I walked into the theater, the previews had me a little unsettled. When I left, I was literally shaking in my boots. Only a real horror film — one that depends more on the understated truth and less on the gory fantasy — has the intensely frightening quality of “Paranormal Activity.”