It’s the 2nd of October 2022 and we are back with the second instalment in our “KO-Ween” 31 Days of Halloween feature. Today we are taking a look at the 2009 sleeper hit Paranormal Activity.
We are reviewing a horror movie a day for the entirety of October 2022 leading up to Halloween. These reviews will be shorter and more straight to the point than my standard format. We will feature a range of movies from classics to a few indie darlings. You can check out the entire KO-Ween feature by clicking right here.
Paranormal Activity was an enormous sleeper hit back in the autumn of 2009. It first saw screenings at festivals a couple of years before in 2007. The movie wasn’t picked up by a publisher so the director, Oren Peli, had to sit on his hands and wait. The wait, however, paid off as the movie was eventually picked up by Paramount Pictures. A new ending was shot costing over 10 times the initial $15,000 budget the movie was made on, and the rest is history. Paranormal Activity went on to become the second most profitable movie ever and a lot of people loved it.
Paranormal Activity was one of the first movies my fiancee and I watched in the cinema together. At the time, I have to say, we were fairly disappointed. This movie was hyped beyond belief. Bloody Disgusting, in particular, were ridiculously hyperbolic regarding how terrifying it was. We were expecting something fantastic. Instead, we were left a little bit bored and a bit confused by the reactions of the people around us. We watched again a little while later and could appreciate it a lot more.
As we were leaving the cinema, a group of young girls were chatting. This movie was only a 15 and proved a huge hit with young teens. We couldn’t help but overhear their enthusiastic, and loud, conversation. Repeated cries of “That was so scary LOL!!” and “OMG the thing running up the stairs” were only surpassed by one girl’s fearful statement of “Can you believe she is still out there right now??”. It was at that moment it dawned on me that there are people that genuinely believe that this is real. Much of that can be attributed to the manner in which Paranormal Activity was filmed.
Paranormal Activity was made on an extremely limited budget. The director, Oren Peli, claimed that he decided to go with a hand held camera to create a more believable scenario. I think the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Budget constraints had to come into that decision somewhere. The actors were only paid $500, initially, for their roles and the movie was filmed and edited at the same time over 7 days.
What emerged from this was a movie that looked as though an ordinary person was simply documenting their everyday life. Paranormal Activity had a certain authenticity that other movies, heavily laden with special effects, just didn’t have. Paranormal Activity seemed almost real and few movies had managed to accomplish that beforehand.
One movie does spring to mind, however. It is impossible to refer to a realistic, camcorder filmed horror without mentioning The Blair Witch Project. Paranormal Activity borrowed heavily from this formula and further condensed it into one setting and, predominantly, two actors. If The Blair Witch Project was bare bones, Paranormal Activity was the remaining marrow.
Paranormal Activity’s success offered further confirmation to budding filmmakers that expensive cameras and high production values were not necessary. What followed was an absolute explosion of found footage style movies. Shaky cams were everywhere, special effects were limited or non-existent, rehearsed acting was put to the side in favour of retro-scripting and improvised reactions. Found footage was officially en vogue and people were immediately divided.
When considering Found Footage as a sub-genre, it’s hard to pick out the good from the bad. There have been some fantastic examples but, speaking as an avid Found Footage fan, there has been some garbage. Found Footage offers an opportunity for aspiring directors to get together with some friends and knock out some absolute trash hoping for easy profit. This further divides horror fans and makes the sub-genre, as a whole, look bad.
Paranormal Activity, however, as the movie that kicked off a whole generation of copy-cats, is actually pretty good. We open with Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat), who have recently moved into a new home, speaking to a camera. Katie claims she has been haunted by an evil presence since she was a child. We are to believe some weird stuff has been going on in the home so Micah sets up cameras to document it.
Almost immediately the cameras capture noises and bizarre events. Katie visits a psychic who suggests Katie is being haunted by a demon. The psychic advises that she contact a demonologist to make contact with, and rid Katie of, the demon. From here on out Katie and Micah are subject to a number of increasingly terrifying events, all of which are documented on cameras placed around the house.
It’s the simplicity of Paranormal Activity that works so well. Knowing of the budget and filming constraints, Oren Peli decided to keep the story simple. There are no convoluted events requiring specific special effects. The cast of characters is small and very contained. There are only a couple of filming locations, and there is only one prevailing theme.
This leads to all of the events being presented in an entirely believable fashion. Much of the scares are based around the characters hearing things. We hear bangs and footsteps, the characters sense a presence, things move without any obvious reason. It is all very effective and very much inline with descriptions real people have shared about hauntings. The closer the events stick to real life, the more effective it is.
Most people have heard unexplained noises in the night. Many people have experienced what they would describe as hauntings. Hell, most of us have had something move without remembering moving it ourselves. Whether you believe or you don’t, this style of film making is impactful and works really well. There is also heavy use of infrasound to keep the viewer unsettled. The infrasound also acts as something of an audible clue to upcoming events.
This is to be expected with the small budget and time constraints. Sometimes Paranormal Activity is a little uneven. Sure, you are never left feeling bored but there is a feeling of routineness to the scares. They roll around in a predictable fashion and it is sometimes very easy to see what is coming. Paranormal Activity was marketed as being something unique and never before seen. The truth is it is a fairly by the numbers haunting/possession horror movie.
There are certain parts where the techniques used to film a scene are pretty apparent. A good example is the obvious use of magnets on a Ouija planchette. These are never big issues but can remind you that you are watching a low budget movie filmed with limited techniques. Added to this is the reliance on jump scares to keep you on edge.
Acting is a bit of a mixed bag. Katie Featherston is generally really good and very believable. I was not the biggest fan of Micah Sloat, however. I felt like he overacted and was far too aware of playing up to the camera. He was, for all intents and purposes, the cameraman so perhaps this was intentional. Maybe he is playing up to the camera to alleviate some of the awkwardness of the situation.
Let’s remember, as well, that this movie was filmed with no script. Scenarios were give to the actors and they were told to react. It’s hard not to be impressed with what they achieved.
Above all else, Paranormal Activity is just an easy movie to enjoy. It never really drags its feet. Scares are frequent and, at times, very effective. It’s not gory and doesn’t feature any sex so is suitable for young teens. The plot makes sense and is never convoluted. Acting is generally good and it doesn’t feel as low budget as some of it’s counterparts.
Obviously this formula has been done to death now and most people are sick of found footage. At the time, however, Paranormal Activity was one of only a couple of films made in this style. Paranormal Activity, as The Blair Witch Project did years before, proved you could make a movie like this and be successful. It also drove a whole new generation of young fans to horror and, for that, it deserves praise. Even if it is isn’t quite as good as people at the time may have claimed.
Paranormal Activity was a huge hit back in 2009. Filmed on a shoe string budget, it went on to become the second most profitable movie of all time, beaten out for the title only by The Blair Witch Project. Only in the horror genre could this type of thing happen and it is one of the reasons I love horror so much.
While it is sometimes an uneven ride, the acting is generally good, the camerawork is okay and not too shaky, the scares are frequent and often effective and the plot is compelling. It is impossible for Paranormal Activity to live up to the hype surrounding it back in 2009. Few movies could live up to the rhetoric surrounding its release. If you can look past that, there is a movie that is easy to enjoy and easy to appreciate. What the creators managed to achieve with so little money is nothing short of incredible and it is still worth a watch today.
The worst thing I can say about Paranormal Activity is that it spawned a generation of copycats who didn't treat the Found Footage genre with the respect it deserved and turned it into a much maligned joke.