Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs
Director: Oren Peli
Running Time: 82 mins
Paranormal Activity is an American film about a young couple who experience a series of disturbing occurrences in their new house, and attempt to document the happenings on camera.
Undoubtedly one of the most successful films ever made – managing $200m at the worldwide box office on a budget of just $15,000 – Paranormal Activity is a testament to the power of indie horror over unimaginative studio thrillers.
At its best, Paranormal Activity is a deeply unnerving, tense and even frightening film that uses both jump scares and well-built suspense to great effect. At its worst, however, it’s a dull, rambling look at a dysfunctional relationship that wastes too much time on unnecessary personal drama.
For me, that meant that half of this movie was absolutely great, and the other half really wasn’t. On the positive side, the horror element of Paranormal Activity is what works well, from its effective atmosphere of terror to ingenious filming techniques.
Using a found-footage style that’s reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity’s success with the technique was arguably even more influential in driving its presence into the mainstream. Whether that was for better or worse is another matter, but in this film, the found-footage style works really well.
Giving convincing reasoning for the film to be shot like that (who wouldn’t start recording 24/7 if you thought you were being haunted), Paranormal Activity not only uses found-footage to bring you closer to the action and fear, but also to intensify some of its scariest moments.
With the film’s main horror sequences taking place during the night as the young couple sleep, you’re left helpless watching on from a tripod in their bedroom, just peering out the door and down the stairs – but not enough to see what’s really going on.
It’s such a simple setup that plays perfectly on old childhood fears of the dark, really wrapping you up in a sense of fear as the horror heightens throughout.
Then, with a strong use of both quick jump scares and slow-build tension, some of those nighttime sequences really do prove to be frightening, even if they may ultimately take a slightly silly direction.
But on the whole, Paranormal Activity is a great watch – when it’s a horror film.
However, half the movie is also spent on the relationship between the two main characters, as they attempt to uncover what’s really going on in their house. Most of these parts of the story play out during the day, with none of the same atmosphere, tension or intrigue as the nighttime sequences.
Of course, wall-to-wall suspense and horror would be too much, but the film spends an unnecessarily long time on those daytime sequences in a futile attempt to build character drama. In all truth, everything that happens during the day is pretty boring, and feels like a slog as you wait for the next thrilling nighttime episode.
As a result, I can’t say that Paranormal Activity is the perfect horror movie – nor the most enthralling. At its best, it’s a gripping, thrilling and genuinely frightening found-footage horror that uses atmosphere and clever filming techniques to great effect. At its worst, however, the film is just really rather dull, failing to develop the dramatic intrigue it so desperately wants to. That makes it all a bit of a mixed bag, which is why I’m giving Paranormal Activity a 7.1 overall.