PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2009)
Hands down one of the most terrifying experiences I’ve had came from the most mundane of sources. One Saturday evening we invited some friends over for dinner. So that we could all enjoy a glass of wine, our friends slept over. In the early hours of the morning I was woken by a strange sound; it was the creaking of footsteps on our stairs. I‘d momentarily forgotten my friends were asleep in the living room, and one of them was now coming upstairs to use the bathroom. The three or so seconds it took me to realise this were the longest of my life as I struggled to comprehend what might be thumping its way up the stairs. Was it a burglar, or was it something much more sinister? What would I do when it reached the top step and surely turned left into our bedroom? Should I wake my girlfriend, should I find a weapon? If my memory had not caught up with me I may have let out a scream. Thankfully my brain kicked into gear before my mouth did.
In this post millennial world, Hollywood seems to have forgotten about the simple scare. The human psyche has not moved on much since crowds of people ducked under their seats for L’Arrivée D’Un Train À La Ciotat (1895). Keeping a scare simple is often the best path to take in creating a frightening film. Elaborate set ups and elongated narratives have their place, but like a joke whose complicated punchline has to be explained post telling, a complex scare can often lose, and, worst still, bore a viewer.
A film that found astounding success by sticking to an ultra minimal approach was The Blair Witch Project (1999). Digging out the forgotten found-footage method that had previously been used in such horrors as The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980), the movie was made up entirely of camcorder footage recovered in the woods after three teenagers went missing. The subsequent footage, viewed in the format of a two hour movie, slowly and horrifyingly suggested what happened to the teens. The restrictions that came with it being off-the-cuff footage became the film’s strength; the stories’ protagonist remained in the shadows, while the characters and the viewer blundered around in the dark, frighteningly unaware of what was happening. You didn’t view The Blair Witch Project, you were part of it and you experienced it.
Filming costs were next to nothing and the massive payday secured by The Blair Witch Project had many industry experts anticipating a cottage industry of Blair Witch imitators, have-a-go filmmakers looking to make a quick buck for minimum investment. But the bandwagon never materialised. A small number of movies using similar camcorder presentation did trickle onto the big screen but not until some years later, Cloverfield (2008), Diary of the Dead (2007) Rec (2007), The Zombie Diaries (2007) and Quarantine (2008). The problem that a number of filmmakers could not overcome was how to make a camcorder movie that was any good. It seemed the success that Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sànchez had with their Blair Witch movie couldn’t be as easily replicated as most people thought.
The main issue was not in how to make the found footage scares effective and believable; that part was relatively easy, the medium lending itself to process. Things that go bump in the night become much creepier when obscured by grainy film stock, what is not seen being filled in by the imagination of the viewer. The oh-so-familiar home video style also made the unbelievable believable, the glossy veneer of modern CGI swapped for the authenticity of something that we could have filmed ourselves.
The big two problems were how to handle a camcorder film’s down time, the moments when we are not searching the shadows for next scare signposts, and the reason for the footage being captured in the first place. In 2005 Israeli born film enthusiast Oren Peli happened upon a great idea for another found footage scary movie. Peli had recently moved into his first house. Having previously lived in apartments Peli was surprised by the silence that comes with owning a full sized abode. Whereas the sounds that accompanied apartment living could be easily explained (noisy neighbours, nearby traffic, etc) house bound bumps in the night were not so easy to rationalise.
Peli figured that one good way of solving such mysteries would be to set up video cameras to film what goes on while you sleep. The thought of viewing the footage back the following day and discovering some creepy goings-on was Peli’s spark of inspiration. From this he wrote a brief story outline for what he believed would be a great camcorder horror film. The film would follow a young couple investigating ghostly happenings in their home by setting up night time recording equipment. The cameras would capture the ever escalating spooky occurrences while the couple slept.
Before he could start his project Peli had to undergo a crash course in filmmaking. Having next to no movie making know-how Peli spent twelve months researching every aspect of production from lighting and make-up, to editing and camera technology. Seeking to inject as much reality into his story as possible Peli also carried out thorough research into the documented evidence of supposed real-life hauntings and possessions. Eventually he was ready, and over the course of seven days Peli and his two lead actors (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) set about making one of the first great scary movies of the new century. Peli called his film Paranormal Activity (2009).
The problem of camcorder down time was tackled by Peli by simply not addressing it. Peli was adamant that his project not be seen as a movie, but viewed for exactly what it was meant to be, discovered camcorder footage. The issue for any viewer is whether they can accept this central conceit. Viewers who are unable to separate the film from all other scary movies, with the standard story telling structure and well worn horror movie rules, might find Peli’s movie slow going at first. But those who were able to discard their customary movie expectations and who allowed themselves to be taken in by the film’s central idea discovered one of the most chilling films ever created.
The plot follows married couple, Katie and Micah over a number of days as they record the spooking happenings in their San Diego home (which was actual real-life home of director Peli). Their initial recordings show nothing too out of the ordinary, doors closing on their own and loud banging noises from downstairs. But when the incidents become more frequent and more disturbing they turn to outside help. After consulting a parapsychologist it becomes clear that it is not a ghost in their house but a demon. Katie reveals that the entity has been following her for a number of years. The psychologist reveals that leaving their home will not resolve the issue as the spirit will simply follow them. Micah and Katie reluctantly continue their project but as the demon becomes bolder the occurrences grow ever more disturbing.
On paper the story sounds typical of the innocents overcome by haunted house sub-genre The Amityville Horror (1979), The Changeling (1979), Poltergeist (1982), The Haunted (1991), The Others (2001). But what marks Paranormal Activity out is the fact that it plays the scares straighter than any film in the genre has done before. Not only is this a movie of serious subject matter, it’s a film that tries its utmost not to be a film.
The normal rules of cinematic story telling are cast aside from the off; there are no opening credits, just a title card. The early run time chills almost as much as the rest of the movie as the benign nature of the occurrences foreshadows what is to come. Katie and Micah’s offhand dismal of the smaller moments at the start of the demonic activity stirs an anxious anticipation. When the more serious frights do start you realise how subtle Peli’s work in the film’s first half was. Almost without the audience knowing it Peli drums up unease as the couple’s blasé nature foretells a greater tragedy to come. Little moments such as the bedroom door moving of its own accord and Micah capturing a vocal reply from the demon on his audio playback become intensely creepy when presented as real found footage.
Much of the credit for the films understated creepiness must go to Featherstone and Sloat in the two central roles. For the audience to believe that they’re watching actual camcorder footage the relationship between the films central couple had to be naturalistic. No matter what the acting talent, such ultra realism is rarely captured on film. Thanks to years of movie viewing we all know what the sound of a script being read is like, even if it is being recited by acting legends like Robert De Niro or Meryl Streep. The easy flow of dialogue that you get from two real people going about their everyday business is hard to replicate. Kudos then to Featherstone and Sloat for their achievements. Despite having limited acting experience the two of them were instantly familiar to viewers mere moments into the film. Not once did they seem like two strangers thrust together for an acting assignment.
To aid the actors Peli utilised some interesting filming methods. Rather than a fully typed script the director only had notes for the actors to work from, instructing them on the point of each scene. Most of the dialogue was improvised by the actors and the resulting footage was exactly what the movie required to support the discovered footage belief. Peli even went one step further for a number of scenes and left the actors alone with his camera to capture certain scenes as they saw fit. Much of the self shot footage such as the kitchen banter scenes, though minor in moving the story along, do wonders for that strived for cinema vérité feel.
With the film’s two major hurdles over come, Peli was left to construct his scares how he saw fit. The director had his scares set out but on paper they seemed weak. Peli discovered this when he went through the process of selling his movie to distributors; describing one of the key frightening moments as ‘the lead female gets out of bed, stands still for two hours, then gets back under the covers’ did not sell the concept of a rollicking rollercoaster ride of thrills. But as he tried to explain, having invested so much effort and skill in the movie’s first half in setting up a non-fictional presentation, it would have ruined the film to have an actor in a demon suit pop out of a wardrobe. The chills had to be believable to work, and the more realistic the happenings, the more frightened the audience would be.
And what chills there are. In an era of cinema that was running amok with its new CGI toy box, no one except Peli had an idea that something as simple as a shadow on a door or the moving of a sheet would be so scary. Not knowing where these scares were going to lead doubled the worry. Should we be concerned for Katie, being pursued by this demon, or should we be worried for Micah as Katie becomes more detached and behaviourally abnormal? Small moments of dread were intensified by the claustrophobic house setting. The finding of an old photograph, the demonologists refusal to re-enter the home, the cracking of a photo-frame; tenuous on their own, but horrifying when piled together.
The filming of Micah and Katie’s bedroom was one of the key scary components. The director spent weeks working on the right set up for the bedroom based video camera, trying all different combinations of lighting, angles, and even bedroom furniture. The resulting footage was a revelation. The only clue we get as to an impending scare is a time display in the bottom right hand corner of the screen. When it stops fast-forwarding and starts running in real time, you can feel your heart beat quicken. You search the murky scene for clues as to what might happen next. Was that a shadow we saw moving, a light coming on in the background, and involuntary movement of the bed linen? Peli crafted an insular world where anything could be used to scare the hell out of the audience, any household object and any mundane event. And it was a setting he did not allow the audience to leave. The small San Diego home was the viewer’s entire world, and the characters to. There is no outside help, no exterior forces, just Micah, Katie and their demon.
Therein we find the one criticism of Peli’s work; plausibility wise, one does wonder why Micah and Katie don’t seek outside help. Having captured the sort of footage that paranormal investigators and television shows would die for, it does seem odd that the couple never leave their house to share their findings. Most jarring of all is the Ouija board self-combustion. Though it was a well filmed special effect, it remains the most intense of all the occurrences captured by Micah. Surely with footage like this he would have been able to seek help from professionals in the field. Peli’s explanation is that the couple had already been warned that leaving their home would not solve the problem. Coupled with Micah’s almost devious devotion to solving the problem himself and his jock like exclamations that the demon ‘leave his girlfriend alone’, we have a somewhat weak explanation for their behaviour. But considering the implausibility of many other classic horror films it is a minor plot crime.
Peli had to work hard to get his movie released. Filmed in 2006 it took three years, an impressive showing at the Slam Dance film festival, and a generous assessment from director Steven Spielberg before the film hit cinema screens. The film having landed with Dreamworks, company executive Spielberg had to okay the film before its release. The director was so spooked by the movie he couldn’t finish watching it in one sitting, choosing to watch the rest of it the next morning. The director also alleged that he got locked in his viewing room whilst watching the film with no explanation as to how or why.
Peli also had a number of editing decisions to make before the movie could be released, chief among which was the movie’s ending. The film’s original climax had Katie slaughtering Micah off screen before returning to their bedroom and sitting, rocking back and forth for hours afterwards. As time rolled by a friend is heard calling in and screaming as she discovers the remains of Micah. This is followed by two policemen breaking in and finding Katie still possessed in the bedroom. When Katie refuses to drop the knife she still wields the police shoot her dead.
After receiving some negative feedback from test audiences, Peli changed the ending to quicken the pace. In the second ending, after killing Micah, Katie returns to the bedroom, walks up to the camera and slices her throat. This was the climax that Peli stuck with for some time until Spielberg suggested a last minute change. This third ending was the one Peli went with for the theatrical release. This open ended conclusion had Katie hurling Micah’s body across the bedroom and growling at the camera with a demonically possessed scowl. A concluding epilogue was also added stating that police were unable to find Katie and her whereabouts remained a mystery. It may have been slightly conceited of Peli and the movies producers to change the ending for sequel purposes before the box office receipts had been counted. But the risk paid off handsomely.
Word of mouth recommendations were swift and film’s reputation spread quickly. A host of excellent reviews ear marked it as the next must see scary movie. There was even a mini cottage industry of quick to cash-in imitators (Paranormal Ascendancy (2009) and Paranormal Entity (2009), both of which are best avoided). The reward was a box office haul the likes of Peli probably only dreamed about, $193million off of a budget of $215,000.
Paranormal Activity 2 (2010), the sequel Peli and Paramount Pictures gambled on having to make, was released three years later in October 2010. Rather than pick up where the first film left off, part two jumped back sixty days prior to the events of the first film. It is revealed that the demon that haunts Katie was originally stalking her sister Kristi. To protect his wife and child Kristi’s husband Daniel transfers the spirit to Katie, with disastrous consequences.
Directing was handed over to Tod Williams, while Peli retained a producer’s credit. With a bigger budget to work with ($3million) Williams followed the usual sequel rules of upping the scares, even if they were just repeats of the first films tricks. It helped that Williams had a bigger cast of characters to work with. The story tied in well with the first film, refusing to go with the lazy option of a possessed Katie on the rampage, and tying up story threads from part one.
The good will and achievements of Peli’s first film surprisingly stretched to another decent sequel when Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) took Katie and Kristi’s story back even further for another prequel outing. Again, the scares were well done and the plot lean enough to support the spooky goings-on. The conceit of why we were watching more camcorder footage was stretched worryingly thin the third time out though, even going so far as to include a botched attempt at a homemade sex tape. Another huge box office profit ensured that the franchise would keep rolling for some time to come, and a year later Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) arrived, picking up Kristi’s story as a direct sequel to the second film. It was finally a sequel too far, relying almost entirely on repeats of tricks and plot points that had been done in the first three films. Fans didn’t seem to mind though as another large box office return swelled the Paramount coffers.
The series took a year off before returning with Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014). The camcorder footage approach was kept but a new plot angle was followed, detailing a group of high school graduates looking in to a cult of demons, or ‘marked ones’. The plot asked viewers to suspend their disbelief far too much for the scares to be effective, and the climax even included time travel as a lazy excuse to bring Micah and Katie back in to the story. Though the film took the lowest box office total of the films to date, the low cost of production ensured that another healthy profit was secured, enough certainly to fund the release of Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015). More old home videos of Katie and Kristi link the film to the franchise, but from there its new characters and clichés plot twists. Negative reviews didn’t seem to affect the box office returns though and another bundle of money came Pararmount’s way. A seventh film is already in pre-production.
Whether further sequels can recapture the lightning in a bottle Peli achieved in 2007 is doubtful. By definition sequels have to be bigger and bolder, but it was the economy of his scares that made Peli’s movie so effective; to make them any more bombastic would be to ruin their ability to terrify. Showing more of the demons that lurk in the shadows is to peel back the curtain and reveal a movie’s hand, and with the mystery resolved the scares dissipate. As with most scary movies, the original outing holds the biggest frights, and they don’t come more petrifying than Paranormal Activity.
See also Paranormal Activity 2 (2010), Paranormal Activity 3 (2011), Paranormal Activity 4 (2012), Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014), and Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015)