It’s October now, and if you aren’t getting high and watching horror movies all month, you are dead to me. Just kidding. But really, what else are the weeks preceding Halloween good for? This week’s recommendation is somewhat of a cult classic, though it’s barely 10 years old. Like “Blair Witch Project,” “Paranormal Activity” is a found footage film made on an impressively shoestring budget ($15,000, a pittance in the movie biz) and it’s terrifying with nary a monster, apparent special effect or more than two jump scares.
Unlike “Blair Witch,” this one takes place in a safe, sunny suburb of San Diego, where a nice 20-something couple (Katie and Micah) have moved into a new house. Micah works from home as a day trader, and Katie is an English student. The entirety of the film happens inside their two-story property, which isn’t dusty or cluttered or shadowy or noticeably haunted, but rather bright, clean and newly furnished. This seeming pureness almost makes the story scarier, as there’s no dark history of murderous former tenants as explanation for mysterious occurrences.
The “paranormal activity” of the movie’s title is presented innocuously, at first. Micah gets a new video camera and starts filming Katie in a flirtatious (albeit invasive) manner, before announcing he wants to leave the camera next to their bed while they sleep because Katie has been followed by some sort of supernatural presence since childhood, and he wants to capture it on film. This presence isn’t human, Katie is certain – and it doesn’t feel benevolent. Yet it’s a part of her life, something she’s used to, and something she hid from Micah for a good portion of their three-year romance.
The film is shot from the vantage point of Micah’s camera. Only a static digital observer (and us, the audience) is there to witness increasingly disturbing happenings. There’s no evidence of special effects, but several of the more action-y shots (very few and far between) seem impossible without them.
“Paranormal Activity” builds up a sense of dread until you can barely take it. The fear isn’t gore-based, it comes only from waiting, watching, listening. Problem is, it’s not the house that’s haunted – it’s Katie. She can’t escape, and Micah won’t leave her. At its heart, the film presents an intimate relationship study: Micah and Katie love each other, but he can’t help her with this, and finds that lack of control maddening. He becomes obsessed with catching the paranormal stuff on camera, desperate for proof or a solution, while Katie suspects there might not be one. As the gender stereotype goes, men seek solutions and women just want someone to listen. Even as the activity grows worse, Micah refuses to stop filming.