“You cannot run from this. It will follow you. It may lay dormant for years. Something may trigger it to become more active. It will, over time, reach out to communicate with you…”
Director: Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Friedrichs, Amber Armstrong
Screenplay: Oren Peli
Synopsis: Micah (Micah Sloat) buys an elaborate camera and microphone system, hoping to capture evidence of the strange phenomena that have been occurring in the San Diego home he shares with his girlfriend, Katie (Katie Featherston). Micah suspects that kids in the neighbourhood may be responsible for the recent events, but Katie tells him reluctantly that such things have been happening to her at intervals since she was eight years old. Micah sets the camera up on a tripod in their bedroom, pointing it through the open doorway and down the hall—where, Katie observes, they previously heard footsteps. Both young people are nervous: they react to the sound of their refrigerator as if it was unfamiliar, and Katie screams at the sight of a spider. However, over the following days the camera and microphone do begin to capture images and sounds that cannot be so easily explained away: faint banging noises come from downstairs, and more footsteps; while one morning, Katie finds her keys on the floor, well away from the bench-top on which she left them. Though Micah is against it, Katie makes contact with Dr Friedrichs (Mark Friedrichs), a psychic, to whom she explains her situation over the phone, and who agrees to pay a visit. Friedrichs begins by asking questions about their life and relationship. When they both insist that everything is good, he presses Katie for more information about her history. She tells him about her childhood experiences, wherein a dark form would materialise at the foot of her bed—a form her younger sister could also see, though it never went near her—and reveals that the house in which this happened burned down, though the subsequent investigation could find no cause for the fire. She also explains that she has experienced various phenomena at different times during the intervening years, in different residences. Katie shows Friedrichs around the house, describing what has happened, and where: lights flickering, taps turning themselves on, and banging and scratching noises; with the majority of the activity apparently focused upon the bedroom. She adds that she occasionally hears whispering, sometimes unintelligible, sometimes saying her name. Micah then shows off his recording equipment; but when he asks whether there is a way to make the phenomena happen, in order to capture footage of them, Friedrichs sees that he and Katie are at odds about this and cautions them about the dangers of negative energy. He also gives Micah a serious warning against trying to communicate with the entity in any way—explaining that this is tantamount to inviting it in…
Comments: I have a long and unhappy history of coming to franchises just when they are wearing out their welcome—when even the first, well-received film or films are starting to attract a backlash for the sins of their legitimate descendants and rip-offs alike. (I call it the Kill Hitler Effect—“If they hadn’t made Film A, we wouldn’t have to suffer through Film Z!”) Such, I gather, is the current state-of-play with the Paranormal Activity franchise, just as I sit down – finally – to watch the one that started it all. I have, however, been fairly scrupulous about trying to avoid spoilers, either specific or in terms of general criticism, with regard to these films, which struck me from the outset as something likely to appeal to me, and which I was confident I would get to sooner or later. As a consequence of this guardedness, I was able to consider Paranormal Activity in as much of a vacuum as possible with respect to a film almost a decade old, and which was the subject of a degree of hype remarkable even in a culture where social media hysteria is the rule rather than the exception.
That said, it simply wasn’t possible to avoid knowing at least the outlines of the story of Oren Peli and his Little Film That Could, which was inspired by Peli’s first experience of living in a standalone house, where after a life spent in noisy apartment-blocks he suddenly found himself unnervingly conscious of every little creak and bump in his new, quiet surroundings. A couple of less commonplace incidents, however, like something left on a shelf being found on the floor, prompted him to consider setting up a camera in his house. His second thoughts were to make a movie about it.
In every way a labour of love, Paranormal Activity was shot (in the first instance) over a gruelling seven days, in Peli’s own house; the former software designer then spent ten months editing the footage and creating the sound design and moments of CGI, which are blended with the film’s practical effects. Peli was still tweaking his project when it was accepted for Screamfest late in 2007, where audience reaction told him he had a hit.
Or at least, a potential hit: it took another frustrating eighteen months for Paranormal Activity to break wide, with the early cut undergoing a somewhat convoluted journey first. Jason Blum, then at Miramax, was its first advocate (Blum had notoriously passed on The Blair Witch Project and, clearly, learned from his mistakes); an edited version prepared by Peli and Blum found its way at length to Steven Spielberg who, so the story goes, was sufficiently freaked out by it even before encountering an inexplicably locked door inside his own house. The film was acquired by DreamWorks, but with the intention of remaking it with a bigger budget. Though Peli and Blum reluctantly agreed to this, they stipulated that a test screening be held first. The response from the test audience was everything they hoped, and the remake idea was scrapped.
Before any further action could be taken, however, DreamWorks was itself acquired by Paramount, and Paranormal Activity was shelved along with all the other DreamWorks productions, until the new studio arrangements were sorted out. During this period, more changes were made to the film: some new touches were incorporated, certain scenes and details were moved around, and issues with the pacing were addressed. (The biggest bone of contention, however, was the ending, as we shall see.) Nevertheless, Paramount continued to sit on Paranormal Activity, even as the international rights to it were snapped up in over fifty countries. It was not until mid-2009 that the film finally found its way onto the studio’s US schedule. Ironically enough, it was Adam Goodman, who had wanted the film remade, who oversaw its release—and all that followed.
Despite all the delays and doubts, Paramount’s subsequent marketing of Paranormal Activity was masterly. Working with Oren Peli, the studio exploited viral marketing (a new concept at the time), using social media in ways that both promoted the film and encouraged audience participation and ownership, including starting the film on limited screens and opening it wider according to the response to a “Demand It” Facebook option, setting up a “Tweet Your Scream” feed, and running ad campaigns that depended less upon showing footage of the film than footage of people reacting to the film. The clever handling of Paramount’s accidental pickup eventually saw Oren Peli’s original $15,000 investment parlayed into a return of nearly $200 million worldwide—and that’s before DVD sales enter the equation.
Box-office profit does not necessarily equate to film quality, of course, but at a time when film budgets continue to escalate to almost unimaginable levels, yet each “blockbuster” seems more ephemeral than the last, there’s something peculiarly satisfying about watching a low-low-budget production – essentially, a home movie – take on the majors and beat the pants off them. The success of Paranormal Activity offers two important lessons to the studios, if only they are willing to learn them: firstly, that’s it’s not actually necessary to spend obscene amounts of money in order to make a good film; and secondly—and it really is astonishing how often Hollywood needs to be reminded of this—that there are a lot of people out there who enjoy a good scare.
Now—I realise that saying that is an open invitation for attack by both the people who hated this film at the outset, and the inevitable, “Aw, that isn’t scary!” brigade that emerges in the wake of any film being declared scary / scariest of the year / scariest ever. But I can only say that Paranormal Activity worked for me. Granted, I’m pretty much the target audience: as I have confessed before, this is exactly the kind of thing that tends to get under my skin and stay there.
Though in general outlines it could hardly be simpler, there is evidence in Paranormal Activity of painstaking and intelligent film-making. While there are those who now call down curses upon it for unleashing a new wave of found-footage monstrosities, the reality is that, as with every other subgenre, the format itself is not the issue, only what is done with it. There are good found-footage films, and there are bad ones; there are those which use this approach for a cogent reason, and others that do it because it’s cheap and easy. I’ll allow that a failed film of this nature can be more painful (artistically and physically) than most other kinds, but even so, dismissing the format in toto is just shooting the messenger.
Found-footage films often stand or fall on their ability to explain themselves away—that is, in providing a reasonable explanation for why the characters keep filming when they should be running for their lives. Paranormal Activity does an excellent job in addressing this and, moreover, doing so pre-emptively, in the way that it sets up the relationship between Katie and Micah. There are only a few scenes where I found myself thinking, “They’re bothering to film now? Really?” At almost all points, the film finds a way to head off the scepticism so fatal to suspension of disbelief.
Furthermore, in using two different kinds of footage in tandem, alternating between the static, night-vision scenes in the bedroom and the mobile, hand-held shots in the rest of the house, the film not only avoids much of the dreaded motion-sickness effect, but builds tension by creating different expectations of what might be seen / heard (expectations, I might add, that it has fun playing with). Unlike many films of this ilk, Paranormal Activity never feels as if it is using its camera technique as a way to avoid showing the audience things. There are plenty of times when the audience sees nothing, but always as a conscious artistic choice. In fact, some of its most unnerving moments are among the film’s simplest, involving nothing more than the characters moving – and staying – out of shot.
And not only does Paranormal Activity head off questions about the constant filming, it goes further and provides an immediate answer to the overarching question that invariably attends films of this genre—namely, Why don’t they just leave? Almost the first thing we learn upon being introduced to Katie is that since her childhood, she has been plagued intermittently by – something – which has followed her from residence to residence, and is now making itself felt in the San Diego home she has just begun to share with her boyfriend of three years, Micah.
The film opens with Katie arriving home to find Micah playing around with his new “giant-ass camera”. The first exchanges between the two reveal that odd things have begun happening in their home. Micah is sceptical, suspecting that some local kids are responsible, but Katie tells him that such things have happened to her, at intervals, since she was eight. Micah is intrigued by this, but immediately takes things in a direction that Katie doesn’t want to go by asking if there’s any way to make the phenomena happen…?
At this point the two of them are relatively light-hearted about things, laughing at their nervous overreaction to the sound of their ice-maker and matter-of-factly discussing where to place the camera and tripod in their bedroom (Katie suggests facing out of the doorway, down the hallway and towards the stairs, because, “That’s where we heard the footsteps”), before settling down for what an onscreen title dubs “Night #1”.
For the most part, the pattern of events in Paranormal Activity follow those most frequently reported in connection with poltergeist activity, with an escalation from seemingly random but harmless incidents to a more overtly threatening behaviour. The night-camera footage presented within the film is only that in which something happens, so that – at least at first – whole days and nights are skipped over. During this first night, there are sounds – more footsteps – which do not wake the sleeping couple; while the next morning, Katie’s keys are found on the floor instead of on the countertop where she left them.
Katie has already contacted someone she refers to as “a psychic” (from what he says of himself, “medium” would be a more accurate term), a Dr Friedrichs, who after some phone conversation has agreed to visit her in person. There is a marked difference in how Katie and Micah anticipate this visit: she is excited and hopeful, feeling that she may be getting some real help at last; he is sulky and resentful, something he expresses by whipping up on his computer a soundtrack of ominous music which he considers appropriate for someone he has decided, a priori, is a fraud.
Paranormal Activity takes pains to present itself in real-world terms: not just in the absence of any film credits, a now-standard trope in found-footage movies intended to underscore that this is “really happening”, but in the care it takes to explain the behaviours of its characters. In this respect, the subplot of Dr Friedrichs one is the film’s cleverest touches—answering yet another standard question for this type of story, namely – to coin a cliché – Who ya gunna call?
Because, let’s face it, despite what the movies like to suggest, you can’t just pick up the yellow pages and hire an exorcist, or a ghost-whisperer, or even a team of professional ghost-hunters—and heaven knows, there are enough of them around at the moment, at least on TV. Nor in fact does every single university have on staff an expert in the occult and/or the paranormal, who comes complete with all the schmanciest new equipment and half-a-dozen over-eager grad students (at least 50% of whom will die trying to solve your problem). And I’m pretty sure if you did consult your local Catholic priest, these days you’d be more likely to get a significant tap of the forehead than an appeal to the diocese.
So in Katie’s situation, what do you do? Your best—which is what she’s done in tracking down Dr Friedrichs—who is, to put it mildly, no Max von Sydow; still less a Zelda Rubinstein. The expert she invites into the house is a perfectly ordinary middle-aged man, a touch which serves to further anchor the story in a prosaic reality.
Through Katie’s interaction with Dr Friedrichs, we learn of her past history with the entity that has, apparently, reappeared in her life; she tells him a great deal more than she has yet confided to Micah. There is a shift in the film’s atmosphere at this point, the first clear suggestion of real danger. We also get a sense of how alone Katie really is in her trouble—not just because Dr Friedrichs immediately declares himself unable, himself, to help her, but because of the implications of Micah’s behaviour.
We now hear about the dark, shadowy form that would manifest near the bed of an eight-year-old Katie – she stresses that her sister could see it, too. Katie further reveals that the house in which this happened later burned down, with the family losing everything; and that, although a full investigation was carried out, no first cause for the fire was ever found. She also confirms that she has had further strange experiences between then and now, regardless of her place of residence.
Katie then walks Friedrichs through the house, explaining what has happened and showing him where: flickering lights, taps turning themselves on, banging noises, scratching sounds; but with most of the phenomena apparently focused on the environs of the bedroom, including whispering—a voice saying her name…
Micah in turn shows off his camera and the sound-recording equipment, asking if there’s any way to make the phenomena happen, so that he can capture it. Both the question in itself and Katie’s immediate discomfort worry Friedrichs who, seeing that they are conflicted on this point, warns them about the dangers of negative energy.
When he has heard all she can tell him, Friedrichs explains to Katie that his area of expertise is communication with ghosts, that is, with dead human beings; while from what she has told him, he believes—not that the entity attached to her isn’t human – duh, obviously – but that it never was. Referring to it as “a demon”, Friedrichs tells Katie bluntly that running away is no use; that it will follow her and, eventually, try to communicate with her.
At this point Micah re-enters the conversation, suggesting the use of a Ouija board:
Micah: “Why don’t we find out what it wants – give it what it wants?”
Friedrichs: “Because what it probably wants is Katie.”
Friedrichs warns Micah against trying to communicate in any way with the entity, explaining that it will certainly take it as an invitation. To Katie he speaks more reassuringly, telling her that although he is not the right person to help her, he knows someone who can: he gives her the name of a colleague, a Dr Averies.
A grateful Katie then thanks him for coming, and for his advice, and sees him out.
Micah: “What a fruit!”
Like many supernatural thrillers, Paranormal Activity is every bit as much about the human relationship at its centre as it is about the spooky goings on. While there is no question about the genuine feeling between Katie and Micah, it becomes increasingly clear to the viewer that their relationship wasn’t built to withstand the kind of stress that’s about to be placed upon it. The screenplay treads lightly in this respect, but lays all the groundwork necessary to highlight the specific pressure-points between the two that determine the nature of their response to their increasingly dangerous situation: a response that traps them both in a vicious circle of creating precisely the emotional conditions guaranteed to make things worse, the negative energy that Dr Friedrichs warns them about.
Most significantly, there is an obvious power imbalance between Katie and Micah. The nature of the film, wherein the normal, day-to-day life of the couple is largely omitted, means that very little emphasis is given to this point, but it is, or becomes, critical. While the occupations of the two – Katie is a student, Micah a day-trader – fall under the work-from-home umbrella favoured by horror stories in general, whereby characters are able to devote time to their circumstances without the demands of a nine-to-five commitment getting in the way, there is a greater importance to this arrangement.
From the outset we are aware of the nice new house occupied by these two young people, the swimming-pool, the car—the camera-gear. Someone’s paying for all this, and presumably, it isn’t student Katie. “How much did that cost?” she asks upon first laying eyes on Micah’s new toy, and his response is an insouciant, “About half as much as I made today.”
In fair weather this might not be important; but as tensions rise we see how it operates when times are tough. Micah’s rather petulant insistence upon getting his own way, and getting it now, and Katie’s tendency to give in to him, are evident from the outset. This pattern of behaviour only intensifies as the situation worsens, with Micah showing an increasingly arrogant disregard of Katie’s wants and needs. We note, in fact, that at no point does he pay any real attention to what she says to him, or do what she asks of him—from the simple, inevitable, Get that camera out of my face, to the tipping-point of, Do not buy a Ouija board and try to communicate with it.
At the same time, what we see on Katie’s part is a reluctance to act autonomously, even for her own good. In particular, there is a suggestion that she feels she needs Micah’s “permission” before calling Dr Averies—-and her hesitation on this point will have seriously consequences.
“I think that’s my favourite quality in you, your maturity,” a sarcastic Katie tells Micah early on as he acts out for the camera, and she speaks more truly than she knows. Though frightened by what he has said to her, Katie is also reassured by her conversation with Dr Friedrichs. More importantly, she feels validated by having someone listen to her and believe her: in spite of his protestations, she isn’t sure that Micah really does. It is both significant and worrying that Micah’s reaction to Friedrichs’ visit – to Katie’s evident trust in him – is an outburst of you-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do adolescent posturing and name-calling. He follows this initial reaction by repeatedly and deliberately flying in the face of Friedrichs’ advice.
And if Micah feels threatened even by Friedrichs’ temporary position as Katie’s support, what of the entity which, he now knows, has been with her since childhood? – a thing entirely of her, in which he has no part? In this we can see another of Paranormal Activity’s most thoughtful touches, the provision of—not a practical, but a psychological explanation for Micah’s continual filming of Katie, even in her most mundane moments, which continues well after the initial phases of them jokingly filming one another and in spite of Katie’s protests and evident distress: it’s his way of reasserting ownership of her.
And, of course, this is also why he insists upon trying to deal with the situation himself, rather than seeking outside help – or letting Katie do so. “I’m taking care of this. No-one comes into my home, fucks with my girlfriend,” he later insists—regardless of the fact that every push of his prompts an ever more ominous shove. We know that Katie has been through this before and emerged unscathed if frightened. Had the two of them remained passive, that may yet again have been the outcome; had they hunkered down together, their closeness might even have banished the presence sooner. But Micah’s self-absorption tips the scale the other way. His ego is more important to him than Katie’s peace of mind—or even her safety.
At this stage we don’t know enough about Katie to even begin to guess how and why the entity has attached itself to her, nor what caused it to come and go during those earlier phases of her life. We need hardly rack our brains, however, for an answer to the question of why the entity has returned now that Katie and Micah have started living together—or why most of its activity is centred around their bedroom.
And that night, after another series of noises, the camera catches its first images associated with the entity when the bedroom door moves by itself, in the absence of a breeze or any other obvious explanation. Viewing the footage the next morning, Katie is understandably disturbed by this, but even more worried when Micah immediately begins pressing her about “bringing the ghost back”, about making things happen.
For the most part, Paranormal Activity eschews false scares – it hardly needs them – but it indulges itself here when Katie begins shrieking in terror—at a spider in the toilet. To be fair, this isn’t just a false scare: as I’ve said, this film has fun playing with its viewers’ expectations, and one of the main ways it does so is via its suggestion that nothing will happen during the daytime, when in fact—well…
Micah: “Did you scream like that for a spider!?”
Katie: “Did you go get the camera first!?”
(Micah is never more likable, at least to me, than while gently escorting the spider out of the house. Meanwhile, this scene is our first intimation that Katie Featherston is an excellent screamer, of which more evidence will be later forthcoming…)
We next find Micah walking the camera around the house, verbally challenging the entity, before getting on Katie’s nerves by reading out to her what his “research” has revealed about demons, that they “exist to cause pain”. But when in response to this she suggests not using the camera – not doing anything to provoke it – Micah has a comeback ready, pointing out that she didn’t tell him about any of this before they moved in together. As he anticipates, this makes Katie go into her shell and leaves him free to do what he wants.
Another escalation follows. Low voices are heard in the bedroom, and Katie wakes gasping in terror from what she thinks is a nightmare. (Her first action, though, is to apologise to Micah for scaring him.) So both of them are wide awake when loud banging noises come from downstairs. Micah immediately grabs the camera and forces it upon the reluctant Katie, who doesn’t want to go down there, but—
They see nothing, but the next day Micah insists upon making Katie and her friend, Amber, who has come over for beading and “girl time”, stop what they’re doing and listen to the sounds captured in the bedroom the night before—which he interprets as the entity “trying to communicate”. He then announces his intention of buying a Ouija board, a plan which both young women instinctively and vehemently protest. Amber argues that if he takes this step, the entity will never go away; while Katie finally wrings from Micah a promise that he won’t buy a board.
Instead, he goes back to calling the entity out (more adolescent posturing and name-calling). There is an immediate response: more noises – a thud, and a crash – and this time when they get down there, the suspended lights in the living-room are still moving. They see nothing else, but as soon as they return to the bedroom, the noises start again… The next morning, an exhausted and frightened Katie again tries to persuade Micah to get rid of the camera, only to be told coolly that this “isn’t an option”, not when they’re “capturing some grade-A shit”. Katie insists that the camera is making things worse, but Micah isn’t listening—in fact, we next find him wandering around with the camera and his sound equipment, challenging the entity with questions that range from the direct to the childish. He gets an answer, too, a low grunting sound, in response to, “Would you be happier talking with a Ouija board?”
That night, the noises start again—and Katie sits up. We see a change in her behaviour, however: instead of the sharp, startled movements with which she has responded up to this point, she seems sluggish; somnambulant. Slowly, she climbs out of bed—and then just stands there, staring at Micah as he sleeps…
This is, of course, one of Paranormal Activity’s most famous set-pieces, and, much like the film itself, it is simple yet strangely effective. The fast-forwarding of the night-vision footage of this incident serves the double purpose of demonstrating that Katie stands at the bedside for a full two hours, while turning her normal, slight, involuntary body movements during this time into something unnatural and creepy.
At the end of those hours, Katie turns and stumbles out of the room…
Eventually Micah wakes up to find Katie missing. She does not respond to his call, and his hunt through the house – camera in hand, of course – fails to locate her. At last he finds her outside, sitting in a swing-chair on the patio. She is distant and unresponsive, refusing to come into the house at his bidding.
Muttering angrily, he goes back in to get some blankets – it is very cold, and Katie is scantily dressed – but is distracted from Katie’s situation by a loud banging noise upstairs. Micah follows it to the bedroom, where the TV is on, though only showing static. He is then startled by the reappearance of Katie, who mumbles something indistinctly and climbs back into bed, wanting only to go back to sleep. Micah doesn’t immediately join her: for the first time, he is thoroughly freaked out…
Katie can only stare incredulously at the night’s footage: she has no memory of any of it; while Micah’s suggestion that she may have been doing this for years without knowing it is rather less than comforting. He holds her close and tells her that they have to stay strong—while also intimating that trying to get assistance from someone else, “an exorcist or something”, is likely to make things worse rather than better.
And the next think we know, Micah is tinkering with a Ouija board…
He sighs and rolls his eyes through Katie’s explosive reaction, smirking to himself as he argues that he didn’t buy it, he borrowed it, so…but he leaves the board to follow her when she storms out of the house. So only the camera is there to see what happens next…
Disregarding Katie’s anger and distress, Micah starts trying to decipher the marks left on the board, which he thinks might be a message; he is even self-absorbed enough to try and solicit Katie’s help!
(“I think she’s pissed,” he comments when she throws him out of the bedroom; gee, what tipped you off, bright boy?)
The next morning, Katie carries her point of having the camera turned off. When it is turned on again – after what we are left to imagine was a very unpleasant day – we find Micah reciting a promise to follow Katie’s rules from now on; although the mocking tone and the inevitable rider, “Whatever”, indicate the degree of sincerity involved.
And sure enough, we next find him back at the Ouija board, concluding that the pattern of scratches may be spelling out a name, maybe Diane, or Edina. Katie, meanwhile, is pouring out her woes over wine to Amber—who annoys Micah by calling him out on his reiterated insistence that he has “a plan” to deal with the situation: he has no answer when she asks the obvious question. Amber invites Katie to stay with her for a while, but she refuses on the grounds that she doesn’t want to bring whatever it is into Amber’s home.
The next argument is over the couple’s conflicting game-plans: Micah is set on spreading a layer of talcum powder all over the floor in the hallway and near the bedroom door, while Katie is again promising / threatening to call Dr Averies. (Oh my God, girl, just do it!)
He gets his way, of course—and possibly a little more than he bargained for. There are footprints in the powder, all right—footprints that come into the bedroom, but do not leave it. And what sort of feet made them…?
The two follow the reverse trail out into the hallway, where it stops—right below the trapdoor into the ceiling, which is out of place. Over Katie’s frightened protests, Micah insists on getting a ladder and taking the camera up there.
It’s a classic scare-scene set-up, but the payoff is quiet, if no less disturbing for that. Some distance from the opening, Micah finds the charred remnant of a photograph, a picture of Katie as a child, so she says. A photograph that was lost in the fire…which shouldn’t exist, let alone be in the house…and which, by Micah’s calculations, was situated directly above their bed.
The following morning Katie finally puts her foot down, saying all the things she’s been biting her tongue over for days—or at least, failing to make Micah hear: that nothing he has done is helping, that he’s not making progress, that he’s making the situation worse—above all, that he is not in control; that they’re being played with.
And at last she’s mad enough to pick up the phone and call Dr Averies—
—who is out of town now, and won’t be back for several days. In desperation, Katie calls Dr Friedrichs again, who agrees to come, but cannot until the following day.
The intervening period is one of the worst, with an overt attack upon the bedroom during the night, and another – during the daytime – upon a photograph of Katie and Micah, which is left shattered and slashed.
While Micah is inspecting this – “How come my face is scratched and yours isn’t?” – a terrified Katie whispers that something is right there—she can feel it breathing. And we watch her hair stir…
(It whispers to her as she sleeps, it touches her in bed, it’s breathing on her– Ugh. There’s horrible sense of violation in this accumulation of details, about this series of encounters which started in a child’s bedroom.)
When Dr Friedrichs does arrive, Katie clutches at him as at the proverbial straw—and he’s just that much use. Friedrichs has barely stepped over the threshold when he stops and recoils, instantly conscious of how much the atmosphere has changed since his last visit, and the degree to which the entity has become an immediate presence—and a malignant one. Despite Katie’s frantic pleading – Micah’s too; how about that? – he begins to back away and out, insisting that he’s making it angrier by being there, that only Dr Averies can help them, that he’ll be back soon, they just need to hang on…
And then he’s gone.
Crushed by disappointment and exhaustion, Katie sobs herself to sleep. During the night, the sheet covering her billows in a way that suggests something has been touching her, has perhaps even slid into bed beside her; some time later she jerks awake with a gasp, certain again that she has felt breathing; that the thing is still near to them. Micah tries to comfort her, but now she knows it isn’t going away…
Returning to his “research”, Micah locates a webpage discussing a case from the sixties, wherein a young woman experienced almost the same pattern of manifestations as Katie. In that case, her parents did arrange for an exorcism. It didn’t end well…
(This is another interesting, dual-level touch to the film. No-one could possibly read this webpage in the cinema, and instead have to rest content – content? – with Micah’s potted version of events. But this sequence is constructed in full consciousness of a future DVD release and a good pause button, and there is a lot of information presented on that that impacts upon Katie’s situation, including the young woman’s name – Diane – and a couple of nasty details that make their significance felt soon enough.)
Micah now uses this to support his contention that they shouldn’t ask for outside help; arguing that the thing has gone away on its own before, and may well again. Which would be all well and good, if only he hadn’t spent the last few weeks deliberately provoking it. And if he didn’t immediately go back on his own words by coming up with a few more ideas for how to “handle the situation”—and insist upon Katie putting aside her neglected study and talking about it immediately.
Not surprisingly, she lashes out at him before storming away—and he lashes right back:
Micah: “I didn’t bring that thing in the house—you did!”
He repents when he finds her curled up on the hallway floor and sobbing hysterically, but we are not surprised when another bedroom manifestation follows. This time, a shadow passes near—and the next moment Katie is dragged screaming out of bed and into the darkness beyond the door. Micah rushes madly after her and manages to bring her back—but Katie does not emerge from the experience uninjured. “Jesus,” breathes Micah as he examines what is, unmistakably, a bite mark.
At this point, futile or not, the two agree to get out of the house, to retreat to a motel for the night and try and regroup. But it doesn’t happen. By the time Micah has their things packed Katie is slumped upon the floor in a near catatonic-state, clutching a crucifix so tightly that it has cut deeply into her hand. She remains unresponsive as a panicking Micah tries to stop the bleeding, and in a fit of mingled anger and unacknowledged fear, he hits back by burning both the bloodied crucifix and the found photograph in the fireplace.
Yeah, that’ll help.
At some point Micah manages to put Katie to bed. When he tries to get her up again, to get the two of them out of the house, she starts insisting that she doesn’t want to go, that it’s better if they stay. An incredulous Micah argues with her, but finally capitulates.
We note that this is the one and only time that Micah does what Katie asks—mostly, granted, because this time he can’t make her do anything else. It is also, inevitably, the one time he should not have done what she asks: as he leaves her, Katie snuggles down into the bed, a weird little smile crossing her face…
That night, we again find a somnambulant Katie standing next to her side of the bed—while something pulls the sheet off Micah on the other. Katie then moves around to that side, and for two hours stands over him—until she turns again and walks out of the bedroom and vanishes into the darkness.
Moments later, Micah is jerked out of his sleep by the sound of her screams—the despairing screams of someone in the grip of the most overwhelming terror…
Oren Peli shot any number of endings for Paranormal Activity before settling on one that, briefly, involves the arrival of the police. Paramount objected to this ending – apparently the studio felt it negated the possibility of a sequel, which indicates a dismaying lack of imagination – and Peli trialled two others. One of them provided a nice dramatic bookend to the story, but also resorted to the use of graphic bloodshed in a manner completely at odds with the rest of the film. The third ending – what we might now call “the” ending – offers one more frightening incident…and then tacks on a cheap last-second jump-scare.
While the kicker ending is often just a sign of laziness, in certain cases its presence seems to indicate uncertainty on the part of the director over when and how to end a film. In particular, there often seems to be a feeling of obligation about going out with a bang, even when a whimper would be more appropriate: a bang that too often manifests as a crude booga-booga. Whether this tendency reflects artistic misjudgement or studio interference, a lack of faith in the audience or simple cold feet, the result is usually a feeling of letdown.
Such is the case here; and it’s particularly disappointing in a film where otherwise, the director shows himself so deftly in control of his material. However, the film gets enough right that we can forgive a final stumble.
(Me? I would have stopped at the point where the audience sees nothing but hears everything…and then faded to the end-title. But then, I’m a fan of the whimper. Failing that, I’d settle for the existing ending shorn of the booga-booga.)
In the end, I find Paranormal Activity not only effective, but admirable in its very simplicity; while there is something deeply endearing about its reliance upon the most basic of practical effects. (Let’s see: we can spend $100 million on CGI, or we can use a wire to make a door slam…) Few productions belong to one individual as much as this one does, in a which a man with a camera, a house, a tiny cast and an even smaller budget offers the world a pointed reminder of the importance of individual vision and personal commitment in the delivery of a compelling film.
But while we cannot overstate the extent of Oren Peli’s contribution, appropriate credit should also be given to the two young actors who have to carry the story – a second film only for Katie Featherston, a first for Micah Sloat – not least because, as is often the case in found-footage films, they ad-libbed much of their dialogue, being left to fill in the gaps after the scenes were blocked out. The two have real chemistry together, while Featherston in particular has a natural screen presence that is very appealing.
There will, of course, be many people who will sit through Paranormal Activity unmoved and bored, while others will just find it annoying. For the susceptible amongst us, however, its straightforward willingness to go for the creep-out rather than the gross-out is a perversely welcome gift. It is a measure of the film’s success in this regard that for days, even weeks after watching it I found myself morbidly conscious of every creak, bump and pipe-knock in a house unfortunately given to that sort of thing; of how many possums use my roof and my verandah as a short-cut (at least, I think it’s possums); of how often my cat felt the need to skitter across the lounge-room and gaze wide-eyed through the glass door at something in the darkness beyond…
In other words—mission accomplished.
This review is part of the B-Masters’ examination of micro-budget cinema.
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I remember the family cat sitting on my bed at night and moving his head as he was watching ‘something’ fly around. It was probably just some insect, but still creepy as all get out.
And finally, a movie that does demonstrate what you don’t know, and what you don’t see, can be ten times scarier than what any CGI or makeup artist can come up with.
Cats Can See Things We Can’t, as Bill Kliban used to say. When this same cat was much younger, she liked to play a game we called “Ha, ha, made you look”, wherein she would suddenly stop dead and stare past us at something—and stop doing it as soon as we turned around to see what she was looking at. Of course, there was never anything there…
It’s ridiculous, really: the static camera, sitting there saying, “Yes, that is where something is going to happen…sometime”, and the way the time-code kicks in and out. It probably shouldn’t work as well as it does, but there’s a lesson in the fact that it does.
Great review. I like the movie for what it is (it’s definitely one of the better found footage films I’ve seen, though Trollhunter is better) but it just didn’t scare me at all (though the time lapse footage of Katie watching Micah sleep is effectively creepy). Maybe I’ve just seen too many horror flicks. That being said, I greatly admire the craft that went into the making of the film. That’s something laudable no matter what you thought of the film.
Thanks, Ed! And yes, that’s fair enough—I do think you have to admire the making of it, distinct from what effect it has upon you (or not).
I made a trip from the Island of Grand to Lincoln to see this when it first hit (160 mile round-trip), a matinee, where I took my seat in the cavernous theater all by myself. Eventually the lights went down, still by myself, and the movie started. Now, like yourself, I enjoy a good slow creep, got invested with the characters, and enjoyed this one quite a lot. The stereo-sound really helped with the mystery noises happening from all sides, directions, and echoing all around you. And when it ended, with the residual creepy still lingering, the lights came up in the theater and I gathered up my trash, put on my coat and then stopped. And there, in the back row, was a middle-aged woman silently sitting in the corner, who just sat there, staring blankly at the screen. When she came in, I have no idea. Had she come in? I had clear line of sight of both entrances the whole time. How long had she been there? Why isn’t she moving? Well, I didn’t stick around to find out and beat feet out of the theater. In the safety of the lobby, I thought about waiting to see if she eventually came out but decided to just amscray, feeling somethings are better left unknown.
Anecdote aside, I really did enjoy the film but I never bothered with any of the sequels, soured by the poor imitators it had spawned, until I caught the last one, The Ghost Dimension (2015). And as I watched, lamenting the fact that this is what cinematic horror has been reduced to — an audience watching a tape of another person watching another tape — the film kinda dug in its heels and I found myself kinda digging it. So perhaps I should give the rest of the franchise a chance? Your excellent write-up has definitely reignited the itch.
Aw, man—I think at that point, that would have finished me!
I don’t see horror movies in the cinema any more—I find I get too distracted by other people on one hand, and too self-conscious on the other, so alone in my lounge-room is my preferred viewing arrangement, to let the film work. The last time I was going regularly, I was working quite close to a cinema complex and would go to early-evening sessions, 5.15pm – 5.30pm, because that way I was often the only one there, or nearly. I always sat in the back row so as to avoid having anyone / anything behind me. Anyone who showed up at that time was there for the same reason I was, in hope of being alone; and there would often be the same little incident of one or two other people walking in and baulking upon finding someone already there; after which we would all sit carefully equidistant from one another.
(That’s right: *I* was the creepy middle-aged woman in the back row!!)
I can’t advise on the rest, of course, but I imagine I’ll get to them—I’m strangely interested in the Japanese pseudo-sequel.
I remember one year, I think it was the same year our local multplexawhosits started running matinees all week instead of just the weekend, where I had a streak of 9 out of ten films I went to wound up being private screenings, and the tenth was just me and a buddy for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
I worked so hard at it yet hardly ever managed it, alas! – finally hit the jackpot with Godsend (the De Niro one).
The second visit of Dr Friedrichs is the moment I remember the most, the horror in his voice and the look of that guy recognizing the menace creep me out. Very good movie, great review as always… and that little game of “Ha, ha, made you look”, my cat does it ALL the time, little weirdo…
Yes, good call—the way it’s done, you almost feel what he feels—brrr! It also brings home exactly how dangerous Micah’s behaviour is.
I shall have to re-watch this one; the sequels have tarnished my memory of it, and this review has served as a nice tin of Brasso.
My wife has seen most of the series (she has more free time and a higher tolerance for terrible horror), while I’ve stopped after… four of them, I think. We, which is mainly she, have worked out that it’s not a simple linear diminishing of returns, nor an easy formula as in the case of Star Trek Original Cast films, but a more complex and difficult situation. How good a Paranormal Activity film will be depends very much on the amount of effort to explain why these things are happening is made. It’s an inverse relationship, of course– more explanation makes for a worse horror film. Thus, while this remains the high-point of the series, there’s at least one that’s ALMOST as good.
And if my wife were anywhere nearby right now, I’d ask her to remind me of which ones are which. You can’t tell until at least half-way along which way they’ll fall, and all I can offer on my own is that if you fall into an El Santo-style fit of completism, it’s not all misery.
So how many are there!? Quick check: six + the Japanese one, is that right? Plus, of course, all The Asylum rip-offs…
Yes, that’s exactly the problem with making sequels to something like this, the trap of either showing too much or explaining too much (or both). I can easily imagine an inverse ratio of success on that basis.
*If* I fall into a fit of completism?? 😀
He don’t know you too well, do he? 😉
Apparently not! 😀
I admit I was put off this up front by the whole found-footage thing: that’s hardly ever worked for me, even in films that other people agree are great.
(For me that moment was the move from a rented house into one that I owned. All of a sudden a dripping toilet cistern could wake me from a sound sleep. So I guess that’s more Amityville, in terms of suburban insecurities turned into horror films.)
That’s not an unreasonable response—I’m not a big fan of this approach either, although if you set this film next to something like The Amityville Haunting (which is of course ripping this off, not what it’s supposed to be ripping off), the care that went into crafting it is very evident.
We saw this in the theater, and to this day, the creepiest moments for me are the bedroom door opening, and the sheet billowing–because nothing else happens. For hours, you’re waiting for the payoff, joints frozen, eyes pealed, staring at the footage–nothing else happens. It’s not following the “rules” of horror. It’s doing what it wants, at all times.
It is—as Katie realises too late for it to be any use to her.
To me the most horrifying thing about the sheet business is the way it uncovers her foot—which does eventually pay off in the drag scene. I get all skin-crawly whenever I think about the fact that this thing keeps touching her.
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Feet are so vulnerable. The idea of some….thing…touching my bare foot as I sleep…the way such small bits in the film twist what should be innocent or protective into something so grotesque.
The entire film really rings a bell in the “metaphor for sexual abuse” arena–I don’t think on purpose, either, which makes it even creepier.
As Stephen King used to say, “I know there’s no such thing as the monster under my bed. And I also know that if I keep my feet tucked in, it won’t be able to grab me.” 🙂
(Hmm… Flashing back on the text-book “hand from under the bed” moment in The Sixth Sense.)
I do wonder if we’re having a particularly female response here? – this is the aspect of the film that’s still bugging me now (I’m mostly over the house noises).
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Maybe I’m too in touch with my feminine side, but I think the sheet moment creeped me out more than anything else. (The footprints were pretty close.) I didn’t think of the connection to the dragging, though; nicely spotted.
Aww, good for you! 😀
Seriously, I wouldn’t try to say that that particular vulnerability is an exclusively female thing but, as The Goddess notes, I do think that overall this film plays into some quite specific female fears.
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I have to admit that your discussion here with GoT is an interesting viewpoint on things that I would not have thought of; it may very well be a female response. I wouldn’t have seen the sheet moment as humorous if it’d happened to Micah.
I do have the “please don’t let something grab my foot” thing to some extent, but I blame that on a particular episode of “Tales From the Darkside” that I saw at an impressionable age. (I spent a good amount of time taking flying leaps at my bed following that particular viewing.) Although I think that’s a pretty universal human thing, coming as it does from the fear of the unknown.
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This conversation, to me, is hilarious. I definitely think its a femme thing because to me its like.. if something was grabbing my foot, it wouldn’t creep me out as much I would just kind of be like what the fuck!? Women do think about abuse/rape A LOT though so it would kind of make sense but I figured you’d feel more vulnerable about like being grabbed on the tit or a private part or even like a thigh or something than your foot.
Well, we’ve already had The Rev here arguing that’s it’s not an exclusively female thing, so there’s that.
But given that unwanted touching is the thin edge of a very ugly wedge that altogether too many women have to deal with, it’s hardly surprising if there’s a heightened female sensitivity to these moments.
At the same time, I think this speaks to something much more primal, the kind of “childhood fear” that persists on an unconscious level into adulthood; which is why, simple and obvious as it seems (and is!), it still works. (See also: the hand from under the bed in The Sixth Sense.)
I wonder too? Is it maternal? Or the experience of being the more “vulnerable” gender, and all that entails in personal experience, brought to bear while watching a woman in jeopardy?
I’m trying to picture that scene with Micah in Katie’s place and it comes across–humorous. A man’s exposed extremity just doesn’t generate the same “unsafeness.” It’s not that guys can’t be subjected to terrible things in horror movies, of course, but the experience of being unprotected physically is completely different. For instance, if I was filming a scene of “monster under the bed” with a guy as the victim, I can’t see having his foot falling over the edge of the mattress without the character being drunk/passed out. Being chemically impaired would “lower” his state to “female” levels of grab-ability.
(And that scene in Sixth Sense yanked my stomach right through my throat.)
Also perhaps the onus placed on women to avoid putting themselves in danger, not to “ask for it”. It’s up to you to make sure the monsters don’t get you. (So don’t sleep! never ever sleep!)
Interesting to note that a similar point came up for me with regard to Sinister: you might remember I complained that the main character never turns the lights on? When I was reading other reviews of the film to see what people thought, I noticed that every person for whom the fact that he doesn’t turn on the lights was a serious issue was female. Is that the same sort of thing, do you think? – that you’re sitting there conscious, as a woman, that there is no way you would NOT have the lights on in that situation?
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I am not sure it splits on easy gender lines. I am male, yet I have a paranoia still of putting me feet out from under the blankets. (Though I am exceptionally skittish. I keep my closet doors slightly open so they don’t creak during the night.) Similarly, on the lights thing, my son, when he was growing up, had a bad fear of the dark and slept for a time with lights on. I got so used to it, I now sleep with at least some lights, while my mother spends an inordinate amount of time turning off the lights I leave on. Perhaps it is not so much gender as it is one’s inherent skittishness, imagination or something else.
Regarding the cat thing above, I had the worst experience. A while ago I was taking medication that intermittently caused small auditory hallucinations. (Mostly happened as the sound of mumbling nearby, or a poorly tuned radio playing beside me.) One night, my cat was lying on my stomach when I thought I heard pretty distinct voices in an empty house. At that exact moment, when I was already a bit spooked, my cat decided to jump to his feet and run off. So, yes, cats are quite skillful at finding ways to confuse and spook their owners. (He also does that “starting at things that aren’t there” game.)
Certainly both sexes have the same fears and vulnerabilities; but I do think, when you’re female, the tendency for everything you do to come with a “BE CAREFUL!!” warning develops an extra-layer of paranoia-sensitivity. (Or more correctly, you lose layers of resistance…)
Oh, man: that situation would have just about finished me, I think. Aren’t cats great, though?? I sat down to watch a real horror movie the other night for the first time in ages and before the credits were over mine was doing the wide-eyed freak-out thing. (And she was always brilliant at the game we call “Ha, ha, made you look.”)
I think so! For men, turning the lights on would be “you’ve got to assess what to do,” but they could make an equally plausible case for keeping things dark and trying to gain a tactical advantage in not being seen. For women it’s “You must know where the danger is at all times and avoid it.” It wouldn’t occur to us that we couldn’t be seen, at least not as a first line of defense. An unseen landscape give the advantage to the hunter, not to you, the hunted.
Great review of a cracking little horror flick! It’s the only one I’ve seen recently that creeped me out progressively more and more as the weeks went by after I’d watched it.
While I agree with pretty much all the reasons you’ve laid out why it works, for me one important one is simply that it is entirely believable as found footage; with most other films of this ilk I’ve seen the footage clearly has to have been edited in order to produce a coherent story (Paranormal Activity 2 is a very good example of this). I don’t think this is usually too intrusive while you’re watching but it does create a sort of continual low-level break of immersion. This movie’s the only one I totally bought as raw, unedited footage (apart from the ‘Day 1’ etc captions, and you can sort-of explain that away as time-stamps added by the San Diego PD).
Oh, and the progressive creeping out thing? Took me a while but I figured it out…it was that recurring static shot showing the bedroom, bed by the open door, looking down the corridor to the bathroom on the left, guest room right ahead and stairs to the right…because that’s the exact same layout as my house. Hence three weeks where I’d be bimbling about in my bedroom only to get that feeling between my shoulder blades, and whipping my head round to catch a glimpse of…something…*shudder*
Welcome, and thank you!
Yes, I always consider lingering discomfort as one of the real signs of a horror movie’s success. I also talk about “The Staircase Test”, which is exactly how reluctant a film makes me to walk upstairs to my bedroom after I’ve watched it. The Exorcist is the champion, but this one scored very highly! Not surprising to note that Oren Peli cites The Exorcist as the film that freaks him out the most; you see its influence in the room-at-the-top-of-the-stairs arrangement. My goodness, your house layout – !! I think I would have moved to a motel for a while. 🙂
And yes, I think this handles the found-footage aspect as well as anything I’ve seen—and much better than most. You can tell they spent a lot of time thinking about the practical aspects of it, whereas for most film-makers this approach is used as an excuse to be lazy. I don’t have any problem with the “editing” of the footage, or the day-stamps, which you can rationalise as how the San Diego PD justified itself after…Ending #1. (Not to mention the way it illustrates how the manifestations increase in number and frequency over the three weeks.)
I thought it would be a weak little Blair Witch rip-off… but I knew I had to see it in a theater to get the experience. Such a good time. Movies generally do not “scare” me… but this gave me some goose bumps. A very effective film that, for the most part, skips the most annoying things about the found footage genre. One thing that bugged me sooo much though was the trailer. I am one of those people who remember the trailer… so the whole flick I keep thinking of one thing in the trailer I had not seen. Then I realize where it has to be. 30 seconds before the final shot. Why the hell do they do this??!!? Anyways… Loved this one. the second one bored me. The 3rd was a fun time and a perfect place to stop. The fourth one bored me again and I checked out. If you go the distance on this series… I will finish it just so I can agree with your complaints as I read the review 🙂
Hi! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
I was thinking as per WB Kelso’s comment up-thread that the one thing I do sacrifice in not seeing films in a theatre is the sound design (although in this case I was quite freaked out enough!); but on the other hand, by staying home I’m not tormented by spoileriffic trailers—why do they do that!? Ruining a film’s pay-off—it’s just so stupid!
Your comments on the rest of the franchise are noted—hopefully we can compare notes at a later date. 🙂
Okay Micah comes across as a grade A Douche in this review BUT isn’t Katie stupid for getting with someone that unmature in the first place?
Oh, dear boy— If we women insisted on holding out for a man who is emotionally mature, we’d ALL die alone instead of just most of us. 😀
As I suggested in the review, when things are okay in this relationship, it probably isn’t an issue: Micah has some irritating character traits, but then who doesn’t? The problem is that he has exactly the wrong personality for the situation they find themselves in, but by the time that becomes apparent, it’s too late.