The marketers of indie flick Paranormal Activity must’ve had a helluva time with this one. A no-budget, skeleton cast and crewed horror spook-em up written and directed by newcomer Oren Peli, very much in the vain of Blair Witch and REC, clips from the footage probably didn’t lend themselves well to trailers. Which is presumably why the early trailer mostly consisted of massive banners quoting reviews; “you will never sleep again”, “you will poop you pants” and so forth they cried (both of which are a bit of an exaggeration) and the current trailer is in the style of the film itself, documenting an audience's terror in lovely night vision as though the main protagonist dusted himself down and kept on filming. And oh, how they scream, oh how they jump. Yes it’s the classic first person “found footage” scare-fest riding on the wave of some quite novel marketing buzz, this time though happily offering a semi-plausible reason as to why the protagonists might continue filming instead of putting down the camera and picking up a bat – a) they’re documenting spooky happening in their house, b) you can’t hit a ghost with a bat stoopid. Also, this footage has been found, and then some thoughtful soul has kindly edited it into a nice sub-90 minute package, and in so doing have crafted a highly competent little creepshow that delivers some genuine chills that will stay with you well after you leave the cinema and crawl back to your safe, dark little bed. Um.., what was that sound..?
The footage follows Micah and Katie, and handsome young couple living in a nice little house in a nice little area. They have a pool and everything. Micah has invested in a tasty new camera to document what’s been happening in this suburban cul-de- sac. It’s a blindingly simple conceit, and is executed brilliantly - the early scenes are utterly plausible, the pair of unknowns being extremely convincing as a happy couple, screwing around with Micah’s new toy and each other, and not taking the whole ghost thing too seriously. And so, they document their lives, setting the camera on a tripod in the corner of the bedroom to watch for spooky happenings while they sleep, in a static shot that we will come to dread, and generally creeping themselves out during the day by watching the footage we have just watched “live”. Things start off at a crawl and gradually ramp up. A door moving by itself, some strange banging sounds – the kind of thing we generally experience now and again, adding to the paranoia you’ll feel on returning home after viewing. But the haunting increases in intensity and violence as the days go on, culminating in a – well, I couldn’t possibly say how far it goes, but you may need to take something/someone to hold onto. It emerges Katie has been followed by this haunting for most of her life, and this demon, so sayeth the obligatory psychic expert who pops in for tea, is in some way connected to her - there's no point in running away. And so they don't, and despite at times wanting to, neither do we.
There was a real risk this could have turned into an episode of some TV ghost hunting nonsense with two nitwit protagonists jumping at noises and generally being dull and occasionally screaming at the camera. The horror, when it kicks in in earnest however, is quite dramatic, and after the gentle, lolling introduction, it comes as quite a shock when things get real. Soon the haunting is being really very creepy, and the night scenes become little wars of attrition where we fear the worst and are forced to watch helplessly as the pair try make it through the night, their fragile bodies at the mercy of whatever is stalking in the darkness; we all need sleep after all, and playing on this vulnerability, you really may have trouble dropping off the first night after you watch it. It taps into something quite primal that gets those neck hairs upright just thinking about it - that there might be something just behind your head right now - "I can feel it breathing on me" gasps Katie. Eu, creepsville!
The pacing of the film is in fact both its greatest strength, and ultimately it biggest flaw.While the slow early scenes build up gradually, making it all the more effective when things kick off properly, the movie is not well balanced as a whole. Much like a nervous teenager (if you’ll excuse a rather crass analogy), it warms you up with a lot of perfectly skilful foreplay, but then, just when things start getting really interesting, it makes a clumsy headfirst dash for the finish line. Once we’d got to the meat, I wanted more scares, more action! There were plenty of nice low budget places it could have gone, and that I assumed it would go, given the snail’s pace it had been building us up at, but instead it was all over in a flash, and left me feeling a bit, well, unfulfilled.
That said, this feeling is all testament to how well the near zero budget has been used, the special effects that are in there are extremely well done. Subtle and effective, they really manage to set the nerve endings jangling, and the audience I watched it with were full of gasps and moans and the sounds of straining one involuntarily emits when girding oneself for an impending inevitable shock. “Less is more” is the mantra here – you’ve never before heard such a dramatic reaction from an audience to a light turning on in a distant room, and some brilliantly used time-lapse shots inspired nervous giggling and under breath swearing aplenty – it’s enough to make you sleep with one eye open – and don’t think having someone sleeping nearby will help. Much of the terror stems from great sound design – a low rumble and footsteps can be infinitely more effective than a CG beastie, and of course it helps that our two protagonists, on whom the whole film hangs after all, are both superb to the bitter end - although S1nner found Micah to be a bit irritating.
So it’s all very effective; chilling, nerve wracking and manages to stay with you afterwards, so it must be, as the hype suggests, a classic horror film right? Well, yes and no. It should certainly be seen, and if you are to see it, it should be at the cinema surrounded by a jumpy audience, for what is here is top rate. But ultimately it's so threadbare, so lightweight, it cannot stand up to comparison next to “real” films of the genre. Not to be dismissive of Peli’s massive achievement of getting such a small picture to the big screen, but at the end of the day Paranormal Activity is really little more than a ghost train, a spook house – a cheap carnival thrill. For me, the half baked ending brought the proceedings to a close in a disappointingly abrupt spasm of terror that may have been pleasing at the time, but looking back you can’t help but feel if it had been just a little bit more fully cooked, it could’ve been a bona-fide knee trembler. But hey, everyone still loves the ghost train right? So hop on, enjoy, get home and leave the light on.
Paranormal Activity is released in the UK on the 25th November.
No really, what was that sound?