I am either the ideal person to discuss Paranormal Activity, or the absolute worst person imaginable. See, up until really recently, I didn't have any idea that the film was apparently the object of a huge viral marketing blitz. Somewhere, I picked up that it was made for under $20,000, and I was aware that Paramount had put up a website, to the effect that if the movie got 1,000,000 votes, it would receive a national wide release, and I even visited to vote - not really out of any urge other than my desire for every movie to get a wide release; I'd have done the same for Larry the Cable Guy in Fitcarraldo 2: We're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat. I figured that I'd see it when it got that inevitable wide release (Harry Knowles could guarantee it half that many votes in a single afternoon with the gesture of one puffy, stubby finger), because with that title it must be a horror picture, and I see most of those.

But until doing the research for this review, I didn't know a blessed thing about the widely-hyped midnight screenings; hadn't heard anything about Steven Spielberg's hugely positive response to everything except for the ending, which was subsequently changed; hadn't seen the trailer; I didn't even know what it was about, and I was taken aback in the first few seconds when it was obvious that it was going to be another one of those "first person camera" movies. So basically, I am at once the ideal viewer - for I have no preconceptions - and the absolutely most useless reviewer, since everybody else does have those preconceptions, and if they didn't before the wide release date, than they probably do now that it's been in theaters for over a week (that's another thing: it was out for six days when I saw it, and I still hadn't heard anything. Man, being in film festival mode does crazy shit to your mind).

Among the things I have read: the film is not effective, because it is slow (I really honestly pity people who believe that scary and slow are enemies; in fact, they are the most natural allies in the world); that it is only effective because of the ad campaign, and the audience wills it to be effective; that is effective because of the heightening effect of midnight screenings (those reviews were written, obviously, before October 9th); that it is effective or ineffective because et cetera. Very, very few people seem to grasp that it's effective because actually it's a fucking great horror movie - probably the greatest horror movie I've seen in a theater during its first run. Which is not the same thing as "great movie that is also a horror movie". Paranormal Activity not only fails to be a great movie, it fails even to be especially good; but generic requirements in general outweigh cinematic ones (this is why so many great comedies all the way back to the Marx Brothers look so absurdly flat), and Paranormal Activity is, without a moment's hesitation, one of the scariest movies I have ever seen - scarier by far than 2005's The Descent, and I really didn't expect anything to jump that bar for another decade or two. And I don't scare easily, at all; I think I once tallied up four movies that actually scared me so much that I was still thinking about it more than an hour after they were over. Make that five now.

The thing that makes Paranormal Activity so effective is its resolute familiarity. It is a trite, obvious, and often-made point about horror that seems to go unnoticed by filmmakers nearly 100% of the time: the scariest thing is when something inexplicable and unstoppable intercedes into an otherwise perfectly normal life. That is horror, at its essential. The unknown endangering the quotidian. And in Paranormal Activity, we have just about the most simple, normal, completely domestic scenario that any horror film has ever given us: Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (the actors lend their names to the characters) are young - my guess is that she's 22, he's 25 - they've just moved in together, into a nice house in San Diego that I'm guessing they really oughtn't be able to afford (the movie was shot, and is set, in 2006; sub-prime loans 4eva!), they quarrel a bit but are self-evidently very smitten with each other. Micah is an alpha-male trader, and is a bit of a dick about it; Katie is willing to be somewhat more of a doormat than she should be, but even if she doesn't always act in her best interests, she always says what's on her mind. I know these people. I can think, right now, of three couples that I am friendly with to varying degrees, who are basically these people, though none of the guys are traders and none of the girls are still in school. They are living what seems, to me in my urban whiteness, the most unexceptional lifestyle that a person could conceivably live. And they are being haunted by a fairly nasty-minded entity.

Right there, that's everything that makes Paranormal Activity a work of genius. Katie and Micah didn't have to go into the woods, or buy a house on old burial grounds, or make a stupid bargain with a man in black one rainy night, or do anything. When Katie was eight years old, a malevolent something latched onto her, and that is it. In the whole annals of American horror cinema, I honestly can only think of one other movie where the evil nasty comes into the protagonist's lives for absolutely no reason whatsoever: Halloween. And if that's not a masterpiece, no such thing as a horror masterpiece exists.

Accordingly, writer-director Oren Peli puts a lot of work into making the normal parts of the couple's life seem as realistic and unexceptional as possible. As the film begins, Micah has just purchases a fancy-ass new prosumer camera to record the haunting, and most of what he records is just the random, day-to-day shit that any young couple goes through: pretty much what anybody into cameras enough to buy one that expensive would do with it for the first few days. So we get to see a certain baseline of normal that I, at least, found absolutely convincing; both actors managed to sell me on the reality of their characters, largely because there isn't anything to sell. Like I said: I know these people. I know that some people have argued that like most first-person camera movies, Paranormal Activity fails to convince us that Micah would really keep the camera with him all the way through, but I never doubted it for a moment. I know exactly why he keeps shooting, even though it's never once said aloud or even implied by either character, and not one of the other reviews I've read has come to the same conclusion. He does it because he watches Ghost Hunters. And they never stop filming, and things never get out of hand, and it's really cool what happens to them, just like he keeps insisting that his own haunting is "cool" rather than "terrifying" up until the final day of the film, just like a proper alpha.

Once this baseline is established, Peli starts to mix in some very modest bumps in the night. Most of these occur during time-lapse shots of the couple sleeping in bed: the on-screen clock speeds up and then stops at some random hour of the night, and there'll be some clomping about, or a door will move. At first, this is just a bit odd, but as it adds up, it starts to get damn creepy and then absolutely fucking scary: there came a point when the film would cut from whatever bit of awake activity Katie and Micah were doing (fighting, mostly, by the end), to that same exact monochrome shot of their bedroom, with the clock ticking, and it just pissed me off to know that yep, in about two minutes or so, something is going to happen and I am going to flip my shit. That right there is the other part of the genius: repetition and pacing. There aren't that many different shots used in the film (it all takes place in the house or its backyard; Katie is early told that the thing will follow her, so why bother running?), and this particular shot of the bedroom creates a kind of sense memory so that just seeing it again, and knowing that it's going to be an unspecified length of time until something happens - you don't know what that something is going to be, either - is the most petrifying feeling in the world. The film uses psychological conditioning perfectly. So perfectly that just seeing that image makes you tense up; so perfectly that as I write this, visualising that image, I've had to stop a couple times and just quickly walk through my apartment to make sure, y'know, that everything's okay (though it's set to post in the morning, I'm writing this in the middle of the night. Dumb idea).

Along with that, the film makes good use of the most important rule any horror director will ever learn: don't show anything. Because the viewer is going to surmise much worse things than you can possibly put in front a camera (though as viewers become stupider and stupider due to prolonged exposure to the like of Saw XVIII, I think this rule will lose some of its validity). Not since The Haunting, the proper one from 1963, has a horror film gotten this much mileage out of a well-designed soundscape. Bangs, rattles, huge damn crashes - all effective, but the real humdinger is just a slight increase in the electronic hum of the background noise. Pardon me, I need to go walkthrough my apartment again.

So great is the film at not-showing, that every time it does show, it's a bit of a letdown (except once: your hint is "footprints"), even if all it's showing is an old photograph. But this is a small complaint against a movie that is otherwise so very exquisitely scary. There's another complaint, one that I can't deny: the film is not terribly exciting qua filmmaking, and it's probably only scary the one time, so there's pretty much no reason to ever revisit the movie. This is likely the case. I certainly don't know that I'll be revisiting it myself. But you know what, this kind of movie only has to work once, and it works about as well that one time as anything else in history.

NB: There's a line of thought that Paranormal Activity can only work if you see it at night. Well, when I walked out of the theater, it was 2:00 in the afternoon, and for this I was profoundly grateful.

Reviews in this series
Paranormal Activity (Peli, 2007)
Paranormal Activity 2 (Williams, 2010)
Paranormal Activity 3 (Joost & Schulman, 2011)
Paranormal Activity 4 (Joost & Schulman, 2012)
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (Landon, 2014)
Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (Plotkin, 2015) - offsite