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Paranormal Activity (2007)

Ever since she was a girl, Katie has been harassed by an unseen supernatural presence, which has subsequently followed her to the new home she shares with her boyfriend Micah. Micah has just had the brilliant idea of setting up a video camera at night to record some of the nocturnal goings-on, hoping that if they can capture proof of the paranormal maybe they might get some help in getting rid of it. If not, at least they have some cool footage of the supernatural to sell. Simple, right?

They are about to learn that this is the parapsychology equivalent of poking it in the face with a stick.

Paranormal Activity is a supernatural horror film written, directed, and edited by Oren Peli, who also set up his own house to use as the movie’s setting. It stars Katie Featherstone, Micah Sloat, Mark Friedrichs, and Amber Armstrong.

It starts simply enough. Micah (Sloat) comes home with a video camera which, as it is explained, he plans to use to record the nocturnal shenanigans of an unseen entity that’s been plaguing his girlfriend Katie (Featherstone), in the hopes of identifying it and getting rid of it. Katie explains the backstory on camera, implicating the being in the fire that destroyed her family’s home when she was eight. It returned when she was thirteen, and has recently shown up again since moving in with Micah. She doesn’t care about the money-making potential of the footage; she just wants the thing gone. They also enlist the help of a psychic (Fredrichs), who informs them that this thing is actually a demon that has fixated on Katie – but his area of expertise is ghosts and not demons, so he gives them the number of a local demonologist to consult, and warns Micah both of them not to antagonize or try to communicate with it. Naturally, Micah decides to be a dumbass, and the incidents only escalate. NICE JOB, MORON.

Of course, the real meat of this movie (around which the plot-padding is arranged) is the footage of what the invisible demon gets up to at night. Yes, that’s right. Invisible. The demon is never recorded on camera. However, all the phenomena that one associates with haunting footage are there – odd noises and knocking sounds, an unattended door moving while the homeowners are asleep nearby. A spooky addition is Katie getting up at butt-thirty in the morning and standing, staring at the sleeping Micah without moving while the footage fast forwards through the next two and a half hours. These events soon escalate to a horrifying conclusion (of which there are apparently four; I have only seen the DVD release one)…

Originally conceived as an independent film, it was picked up by Paramount after studio representatives saw it at a screening and promptly crapped their pants were impressed by the minimalist approach. The film premiered at the Screamfest Film Festival, was shown at the Slamdance Film Festival, and was screened at the Telluride Film Festival. It is currently the most profitable film ever made, filmed on a shoestring budget of $10,000 and earning $194 million worldwide.

I saw this movie a while back, not really knowing what I was getting into. I enjoyed The Blair Witch Project, so I gave this one a shot. It scared the piss out of me. I watched it again recently, this time knowing exactly what I was getting into. Guess what? It still scared the piss out of me. There is something so vulnerable about having stuff like this happening in the dead of night while you’re sleeping and helpless, and the fact that you never see the demon just makes things worse. The effects were subtle and understated, and the setup made something as simple as a door moving six inches by itself incredibly eerie. The fact that the nighttime shenanigans were filmed by a single fixed handheld camera on a tripod didn’t detract from the effect at all; rather, the in-universe camera made it seem more genuine, like these were actually a couple of college students with weird shit happening to them for no goddamn reason at all.

That said, if you don’t like the found footage genre, and if you like seeing your monsters onscreen, you probably won’t like this movie. Most of the terror is largely implied, leaving it up to the audience to imagine what sort of being is harassing them and what could possibly be causing the weird noises at night, not to mention the bits where Katie is shrieking her head off in another part of the house. The terrifying spikes of fear when the weird stuff happens makes the other scenes seem like padding, and there were bits where I just wanted the demon to eat Micah and be done with it. The psychic seemed to know his limitations well enough to realize when he was over his head, but bailing on them at the eleventh hour really didn’t help them at all, even if it was an effective barometer of how real things had gotten by that point.

So, if you liked The Blair Witch Project and you like subtle haunted house movies, you will probably enjoy being scared spitless by this movie. Just don’t watch it immediately before you go to bed.

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