In 2009, when Paranormal Activity was in theaters, I was stuck at home with a colicky baby. I remember next to nothing of popular culture of that time, so it's probably no surprise that I hadn't heard of this film before it was assigned to me in my current Readings In Genre class.
This is a "found footage" style movie like Blair Witch, but this amateur filmmaker has a steady-cam and a tripod, which makes for less-nauseated viewing. The premise--that a young woman has been bedeviled by nighttime paranormal activity since she was eight-years-old--was plausible and though the acting felt stiff and forced in the beginning, this couple quickly hit their stride in this unscripted production that was filmed for only $15,000 and grossed more than any other film in history. This movie is proof that one doesn’t need a huge budget, elaborate set, or dozens of famous actors to make an effective and successful film. It’s all about the story one tells—and the way it’s told.
Shot entirely inside a two-story home, day and night, over the course of one week, the setting seemed utterly realistic and the couple improvised their dialogue, even flubbing their speech naturally, to the point that I quickly suspended all disbelief and became engrossed in their troubles.
I really liked how the haunting seemed to progress in this tale. Micah gets more and more agitated as he attempts to understand and solve the problem. In turn, Katie's fears are amplified, and the entity--which seems to be feeding on her fear--grows stronger.
One of the things I appreciated about this flick was the choice to keep the violence off-camera, more like classic horror films. You can do a lot with the power of suggestion—and save a lot of money on CGI. I personally don't believe that seeing violence makes a movie more scary. The unknown is what is scary. Whatever happened to Katie and Micah in that dark back bedroom is terrifying enough when we simply hear the sounds and see their shock-stricken expressions. I'll admit to having to remind myself that it was just a movie more than once as I watched.
It really has the feeling of a docudrama. I especially liked the time lapse footage when they were sleeping. And in this instance at least, the found-footage conceit really works. By the end, the couple has generated so much chemistry that their body language, expressions, and actions felt entirely true. The close quarters and grueling work of 24/7 filming for a week probably contributed to that feeling that they were a real couple in the middle of something terrible.
What this film really demonstrates is that a haunted house need not be a lavish mansion or even be set in an exotic or remote locale. A plausible premise, believable characters, and a series of spooky occurrences will set people's spines twanging. Short scenes like them woodenly eating take-out with blank stares added to the realism. The tension increased as the characters make bad judgement calls, disagree with each other, and get strange advise from a psychic. Suddenly a door moving on its own or a swinging light fixture becomes terrifying.
We can do the same thing with our fiction. A haunted house story doesn’t have to be set in a dark and stormy night in a ramshackle house on the edge of a cliff. With a good plot, plausible premise, and realistic dialogue, a spooky atmosphere can take over any locale—and give us the shivers we desire.