This phenomenally successful no-budgeter is a skilled piece of work, and proves two things: 1). That audiences are always up for a good scare (especially around Halloween!), and 2). Marketing-wise there’s no substitute for old-fashioned hype.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY was the brainchild of Oren Peli, a San Diego based video game designer who made the digitally-lensed film for a reported $11,000 inside his own house. The project, completed in 2007, was bought up by Dreamworks, whose head Steven Spielberg was reportedly so freaked out after viewing it that he took to locking his bedroom door from the inside and ordered an assistant to remove the DVD from his home. Spielberg is also credited with “suggesting” the film’s ending, which was reshot after test audiences voted down Peli’s initial fade-out (from what I’ve heard about that original conclusion I’ll have to say the current one is better).
Dreamworks initially elected to remake the film and release the original only as a DVD extra. However, that remake never surfaced and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY languished in distribution Hell for over two years, until Paramount elected to finally exhibit the film in September of 2009.
By that point internet buzz about this “scariest movie ever made” had reached a fever pitch. Initial screenings, held at midnight in select college towns, sold out across the board. The release was gradually expended, apparently due to a website where audiences could vote for the film to open in their town; allegedly, once a million votes were reached the film would open nationwide. Yet a wide opening at the end of October appears to have been Paramount’s goal all along, meaning the release-by-demand scheme was bogus (this, keep in mind, is from one who actually logged in a vote and had his inbox filled up with spam as a result).
Micah, a day trader, has recently moved in with his student girlfriend Katie. She believes a presence is haunting her, and has shadowed her since she was a child. Micah is skeptical, but places a digital camera in their house to record the alleged haunting.
At first the camera, which Micah strategically places in his and Katie’s bedroom to view what goes on while they sleep, picks up very little outside a few odd noises. But the nighttime bumps and rustling grow more severe: a downstairs chandelier is jostled, the bedroom door opens by itself, a hallway light flashes, and Katie undergoes a weird fugue state in which she inexplicably gets up and stares at her sleeping boyfriend.
A psychic man is called in to confirm the haunting. This he does, claiming that a demon is the cause of the disturbances rather than a ghost. The man strongly advises Katie and Micah not to use a Ouija board to summon the demon, as that will only agitate it.
Being the impulsive sort he is, Micah gets his hands on a Ouija board. This forges a riff between him and Katie, and (as the psychic predicted) agitates the unseen demon, who steps up its nightly harassment until…
This film works because of the intense atmosphere of shuddery anticipation it so skillfully constructs. The actual scares admittedly aren’t all that (fact: shadows on walls and slamming doors aren’t especially scary), but the suspense is genuine. Despite the loose, improvisatory nature of the narrative, the tension is expertly orchestrated by writer-director Oren Peli. Each time the protagonists climb into bed the suspense mounts, and the ensuing scare sequences are ingeniously edited: note the pauses that precede the shocks, which are deliberately extended to maximize the tension.
Credit also goes to actors Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, who play, appropriately enough, Katie and Micah. Other characters come and go, but the two leads essentially have the film to themselves, and carry it well. Both create open and likeable characters, and their relationship feels real, with all the tensions, private jokes and unspoken silences of an actual couple—which renders the final scenes that much more shocking.
Blumhouse Productions/Paramount Pictures
Director/Screenwriter/Editor: Oren Peli
Cast: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs, Amber Armstrong, Randy McDowell, Ashley Palmer, Tim Piper, Crystal Cartwright