“After moving into a suburban home, a couple becomes increasingly disturbed by a nightly demonic presence.” — IMDb
At this point I think everyone knows about Paranormal Activity, even if they haven’t actually watched it. It was director Oren Peli’s film debut and to this day it’s only one of two films under his belt (he also directed 2015’s Area 51 — while he wrote and produced the Paranormal Activity sequels, he didn’t direct). It is also said to be the most profitable movie in history (when you consider the actual return on investment) which is pretty amazing. Honestly, I think it’s one of the strongest found footage horror movies out there.
The story is simple: Micah and Katie (both playing themselves) are experiencing some odd things at their San Diego home, which are soon theorized to be the work of a demon who has been following Katie from house to house since she was 8 years old. When Micah decides to not only videotape the experiences but to set up various tests and experiments, the presence only gets stronger (and more angry)…
* SPOILERS! *
It’s a very simple, straight-forward movie about a couple coping with a demon infestation and it really succeeds in being terrifying. I was immediately regretting my decision to watch it alone in our pitch black bedroom because EVERY. SINGLE. NOISE. made me jump.
I’ve said it many times before (in the reviews for The Blair Witch Project, Creep, Cloverfield, etc), I really enjoy this particular sub-genre of horror. I think, when it’s done well (and even sometimes when it’s not), it makes movies seem much more realistic, much more candid, which in turn makes them even more scary. If you can, even for a moment, get lost in the fantasy of it truly being footage spliced together from an abandoned video camera… well, that’s awesome. And this film did that for me, both on my first viewing (maybe back in 2009) and this more recent one.
A big part of its believability, for me, is the fact that Katie and Micah are so natural with one another. They have some obvious chemistry together, but it also helped immensely that their dialogue was largely ad-libbed. As much as Micah’s actions started to annoy the crap out of me (just his role in the film as this protective alpha male who can’t let go of his machismo long enough to accept that maybe he not only can’t solve this particular problem but is making it far worse — like, bro, just stop antagonizing the demon!), his acting was always convincing.
The film is a great example of “less is more” — while there are definitely plenty of creepy things that happen, you spend a good deal of the film intently scanning nighttime footage of them sleeping, or the camera panning across the empty living room, or “is there something moving in that shadow over there?”. It is TENSE and nerve-wracking, as it should be.
They don’t really delve into special effects until the very last scene, so the demon encounters feel super real. Something like a door closing slightly and then re-opening, or those 3-toed footsteps in the baby powder, or a light turning on following by footsteps up the stairs, or them finding the burnt photo of Katie at her childhood home in the attic. Even when Katie is dragged out of bed… obviously some kind of technique was used, but goddamn it looks REAL and it’s so terrifying.
Maybe my only slight complaint was the ending… which, really, wasn’t even the original. The original ending, which I have only read about and not seen (it was scrapped when Paramount Pictures acquired the film), sounded much better to me. Even Paramount’s alternate ending (apparently available on the home releases of the film), which has Katie smiling at the camera before slitting her own throat, sounds better. They also had a THIRD ending which was never shot that involved a possessed Katie bludgeoning Micah to death with his own camera (which was deemed too complicated and too brutal to shoot). I feel like I would have taken any of those over the one they went with, which felt a bit cheesy… but that’s my one tiny bit of critique.
Overall, an awesome found footage horror that still scares me all these years later. I’m excited to re-watch Paranormal Activity 2, as well as to see the others for the first time!