Since its debut in May 2008, Bryan Bertino’s film The Strangers has unofficially held the title of “the scariest movie since The Blair Witch Project.” The Strangers was so immensely terrifying because it preyed on the universal fear of realistic horror in your own house. The idea that something pretty spooky and altogether possible can menace you in an ordinarily safe environment is truly one of the most frightening elements in the horror film genre.
The only thing wrong with Bertino’s film is that it was a little over stylized. It had traditional elements of a horror movie, such as revealing angles and grainy lighting, and, although it had many elements of sheer realism, it lacked that punch of intimate and personal terror, something that can competently be achieved with a handheld camera. Take away that traditional stylization and add the hand-held camera, and you’ve got Oren Peli’s unspeakably petrifying Paranormal Activity. Peli stated that “If it’s just a couple that lives at home and wants to do their own little surveillance project then [a hand-held camera] is what they would use,” which adds tremendously to the realism as well as the plot in an already frightening film.
The movie focuses on an ordinary couple: Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) who have started to notice unusual occurrences going on in their San Diego home. Katie says she’s had supernatural happenings occur in her life before, while Micah remains skeptical and entirely too arrogant. Some of the couple’s new hauntings are as innocent as a thud from downstairs and some as horrifying as indecipherable whispering in the corner of the bedroom. Because of this “paranormal activity,” Micah decides to install a video camera to record what’s been happening while they sleep, which is the state in which Peli believes people are most vulnerable. The results are truly frightening.
At first, the videotapes are nothing too distressing: a bang here, a thud there. It may seem to be a little disappointing that the audience doesn’t really get to see anything. But writer/director/creator Peli masterfully orchestrates a gradual build of suspense and terror, constantly keeping the hands of the audience almost covering their eyes, but not quite. And with the handheld camera, it’s almost like the audience is going with Micah as he relentlessly records each hallway investigation, so it goes unnoticed just how slow the 99 minute film is building until the lights in the theater go up.
Comparisons, of course, can be made to reigning champ The Blair Witch Project as well as with 2008’s handheld camera alien story Cloverfield. The thing Paranormal Activity has that the other two films do not is that kick of realism. Combine the familiar handheld camera method with a refreshingly cliché free in-home horror plot, and you’ve got a movie so ineffably terrifying that you will hesitate to sleep in your own bed again. And that is exactly what Peli wanted while making the film.
The road to fame for Paranormal Activity has been tumultuous to say the least. With Paramount and DreamWorks’ split last year, the film’s future was unclear. Also, the film’s lack of big names and marketable trailer material played a roll in the delay. According to Peli, “Paramount knew that you can’t really release this movie in a standard type of a way because there’s really not a whole lot you can show in the trailer and you don’t have any star power behind it. So they didn’t want to just throw a lot of money into it and frankly didn’t even know how fans were going to respond to it. So they figured the best way [was] to just put it out there slowly, you know, release it and let fans be in control of deciding if they want to see it or not and where they want too see it.“
In fact, Peli believes the film’s gradual success is all thanks to the fans. “We didn’t know that the fans were going to embrace it to the level that they did, which now has put it in a whole new category as far as the studio is concerned. And we’re seeing the movie expanding from one weekend to the other and that’s all thanks to the words of mouth being spread by the fans.” Just days after the film’s October 9th forty city expansion, the website’s “Demand It!” option reached 100,000 demands, prompting Paramount to implement a nationwide release.
What gives this dominatingly scary $11,000 budgeted horror movie its ability to follow viewers in their minds and into their own bedrooms is the fact that we feel like it could happen to us. Katie and Micah are normal people who seem to be hearing the normal sounds of a suburban house. But the idea that this ordinary situation can gradually evolve into something malevolent and demonic hits moviegoers with the threatening sentiment of, “Yeah, this could happen to you.” As seen by the unbelievably strong response from fans, people are enjoying getting scared out of their minds. What started as just a few petrified viewers in select cities will grow to an innumerable amount of people being afraid to enter their bedroom because, as Peli puts it, “That’s the one place you can’t escape.”