REVIEW: Paranormal Activity
Produced by: Oren Peli, Jason Blum
Written by: Oren Peli
Edited by: Oren Peli
Cinematography by: Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs, Amber Armstrong, Ashley Palmer
It’s kind of obligatory to address this issue when reviewing this film, so I’ll just get it over with – It could easily be said that found footage has worn out its welcome, particularly since it hardly seems like filmmakers care that much about actually conforming to the handheld style beyond characters addressing the camera and someone in the movie supposedly holding the camera, even though it makes absolutely no sense for them to continue filming, particularly at the angles they hold the camera (Hello, The Visit…). I wouldn’t exactly refute the claim that found footage itself has gotten tiresome, but it’s not exactly because the style is necessarily overdone – it’s that it is too often being done poorly, oftentimes just as a gimmick. However, a few films still manage to use the style to their advantage and actually do it well. Chronicle comes to mind as being a fairly decent one. I still love Cloverfield, complaints about motion sickness be damned. And the anthology film V/H/S 2 managed to one-up its mediocre predecessor with some truly entertaining and effectively terrifying short subjects within the format. But even these owe a great debt to Paranormal Activity, the film that reignited the found footage craze after a virtual post-Blair Witch lull.
Thanks to a number of sequels and spinoffs that have built a whole lore around the first film, it’s easy to forget how downright simple the plot to Paranormal Activity is, with a strict focus on a young couple, Katie and Micah, dealing with the presence of a spirit that has allegedly followed Katie around since she was a child. Intrigued by Katie’s claims, Micah decides to document their experiences by filming their daily and nightly routines, hoping to catch a glimpse of the spirit at work. Though their initial encounters wind up being fairly mundane at first – a few swinging doors and chandeliers – things quickly escalate when it becomes apparent that this spirit they’ve been taunting isn’t some friendly ghost having fun with the couple. It’s a demon with an agenda.
Where the subsequent films largely feel unnaturally staged and high-budget, despite the found footage trappings, the first film feels completely natural, thanks in large part due to the fact that it genuinely was an incredibly low budget film well before it was a multimillion dollar franchise. Filmed in 2007 and shown around at various festivals before being ultimately picked up by Paramount and given a wide release in 2009, Paranormal Activity’s estimated budget was a mere $15,000. Taking the same approach as The Blair Witch Project, Oren Peli employed unknown actors and had them work with an outline-only script and reacting to economically created, mostly practical effects. The effect of doing it this way makes everything seem so much more raw and unpredictable in comparison to some of the more expensive films in the genre that have had the benefit of being professionally polished up with lots of CGI added in, deliberately staged camerawork, and scripts dictating their every line. Everything here was handled very economically. Lead actor Micah Sloat was even cast in part thanks to his experience handling a camera at a previous job, as well as for his onscreen chemistry with Katie Featherston, who has now pretty much become the franchise’s focal point.
Micah and Katie here feel like a real couple largely in part because they were granted the opportunity (and I’m sure the challenge) to react on the fly to one another, as real people would, and that’s something that works very well for the medium. The second film in the series saw the budget increase to $3 million (200x higher!), while all films after it were budgeted at an estimated $5 million, and yet none of them even comes close to achieving the gritty, natural integrity of what was done here. It’s understandable that the sequels had the expectation of building a franchise, and so they had to dole out bits of information about the whole lore of this series through exposition, but that also makes them feel more like decently crafted haunted house rides than the unnerving randomness of events that the first film manages to convey, and this leads to the characters feeling a lot less believable as a result. This is a case of less being more, and a lot of found footage movies screw this up, at the expense of pacing and tone.
It’s also notable that since each subsequent film still depends upon this found footage style, and they’ve had a hard time figuring out valid excuses for characters to be filming every moment of their lives. It makes sense that Micah wants to capture the activity and the reactions to the activity, or have him goof off with the camera a few times in between or even forget the camera is on at times because he’s sat it down to console a frightened Katie. In later films, when you’re just forced into watching kids play Xbox Kinect (which you know is just product placement) or when characters are having a heart-to-heart conversation with one another, you just can’t help but think of it as a nonsensical contrivance thanks to branding. Luckily, even after seeing the sequels, that’s almost never the case here. While I liked the third film and even the second movie and The Marked Ones to certain extents, I kind of wish Paramount had just let Peli keep his original (rarely seen) ending, where the police are called in and pretty much extinguish any hopes of a sequel – or at least sequels in the same vein as what we have now.
Found footage style filmmaking (and films that have used it as an inspiration for more on-the-fly storytelling, as in the shockingly competent Unfriended earlier this year) is actually a style I do enjoy when it’s done well, and I think that it’s gotten a bad reputation mostly because it’s not being treated with the level of respect it actually deserves. It takes a balance of restraint and skill to do it well, and even the best ones still have some serious issues you have to overlook, and so the worst ones stound out even more, as a result. Despite the successful implementation of the form in films like Paranormal Activity, Chronicle, The Blair Witch Project, End of Watch, and Cloverfield, movies like Project X, Chernobyl, Apollo 18, Project Almanac, Into the Storm, As Above, So Below, The Devil Inside, Diary of the Dead, and other mediocre-to-atrocious films come along and contaminate the pool and make it seem as though the medium has gone stale and needs to be retired. That’s poor reasoning, however – the same kind of logic that made it seem as though audiences no longer wanted hand drawn animated movies and led to the overwhelming dominance of 3D CGI films that we see today in America. It’s not really the medium that’s the problem, though – it’s the skill of the filmmakers employing it.
Paranormal Activity as a franchise has become kind of the poster child for the issue, unfortunately, and that really is a shame. It takes its time in creating atmosphere and tension, and even with the Paramount-sweetened effects, they don’t overwhelm the film thanks to the restrained approach that was taken in using them. Apart from maybe the framework of this being purportedly a portrayal of “real” events, little else feels forced or without a reasonable excuse for why it was recorded. The film is also very good at letting us connect with the characters, largely because of the actors’ excellent rapport with one another and their skill in improvisational dialogue. The first film in this series is very deserving of being considered a horror movie classic.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5