When you think about the roots of the modern found footage genre, it’s hard to look past two films: 1999’s The Blair Witch Project and 2007’s Paranormal Activity. Their effectiveness lies in their simplicity; they take existing genre conventions and couple that with the voyeuristic tendencies of audiences to attempt to scare the life out of you. But what is crucially important is the way that they’re packaged, with low-res camera footage and editing that makes you feel like you’re not watching a traditional narrative film, that instead, you’re watching something real.
Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity tells the story of Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat), a young Californian couple experiencing strange noises and events in their new home with no explanation. After inviting a psychic medium into the house, we’re told that the entity tormenting them is a demon, and we learn that it’s not tied to the house but Katie herself. Micah has taken it on himself to buy a video camera to try and get these events on tape, and while he clearly doesn’t take the situation as seriously as you’d expect him to, the audience and the camera witnesses these events with an increasing frequency and severity.
READ MORE: Duel To The Death (1983) – Blu-ray Review
Initially, it’s mainly loud footsteps and the occasional moving of objects, but as time goes on and Micah exacerbates things, it gets worse. The shadow of a figure can be seen several times in the bedroom where the majority of the footage is set, inhuman footprints are discovered after some baby powder is laid down, and an old photo of Katie as a child is found in the attic – a photo from when her childhood home burned down. Micah buys a ouija board which is used by the demon before catching fire, and you can see the couple’s relationship deteriorating, which is no surprise, as Micah is a huge dick.
In fact, that may be the most effective thing about the picture, as a portrayal of gaslighting through fragile masculinity. Micah is a typical bro, as we see at the beginning of the film where he keeps suggesting they use the camera for “extra-curricular activities”, and he seems less worried about the demon than he does making sure he gets everything on tape. He’s obviously affected by the fact that he cannot protect Katie from this trauma, but he is resistant to the idea of outside forces coming to help, ridiculing the idea of a psychic and telling her he has his own plan, which obviously is absolute nonsense, and this makes things worse when he convinces her not to call a demonologist recommended by the medium, as by the time things get so bad that they do call him, he’s gone away for a few days. He also victim blames; making Katie feel this is her own fault, and even at one point calling the demon “her friend”.
The way the camera is used is one of the real stars of the picture, and there’s a degree of audience participation here which helps the film immensely. The camera is set up overnight in the couple’s bedroom pointing towards the open door and the darkened rest of the house, and every “night” the footage runs at forwarding speed before slowing down to real-time, which is a catalyst for the audience to not only prepare themselves for something scary, but also for them to scour every area of the frame to see what might be happening. It’s a curious phenomenon; you find yourself scanning the screen looking for anything strange which then leaves you open for attack, like waiting for the shark to emerge from the water in Jaws.
The sound is also key. Obviously, there’s no non-diegetic music, but the demon is represented in the majority by sounds – we hear thudding footsteps, loud bangs, unintelligible words, and inhuman growls, some of which can obviously be attributed to other, more banal things, but there’s never any suggestion that they’re made by anything other than the demon, with the footage there to back it up. The sound design is a hugely important part of the film’s effectiveness, and speaking as someone with PTSD from home invasion, it can really raise the hair on the back of your neck.
Katie Featherston’s central performance ties the film together impressively, and she presents a very real portrayal of someone being torn apart emotionally by this entity. She cuts a very sympathetic figure, and what’s clear is that she’s being assaulted on two fronts, first by the demon and second by Micah, and both of those are conveyed brilliantly. Micah Sloat is all too believable, and while some of it is pushed to the limit of credibility, that’s more down to Peli and the film itself.
Paranormal Activity is impressive in many ways, as a new twist on a more traditional ghost story, and as an example of how a lack of trust in a relationship can easily see it break down, especially when fragile masculinity is involved. It has some really eerie moments and the way it uses the camera and sound is commendable. However, you have to give in to the central conceit that the camera will be everywhere, and I did come to a point where I felt that – as much of a dick as Micah was – he wouldn’t still be using the camera at certain points. I also baulked at the shadow of the creature, immediately wondering how something invisible can cast a shadow. I know it’s demon magic, but that just took me right out of the film.
Second Sight has put together a fantastic package with this Blu-ray release. The film retains its low-res quality, which helps you question if you’re actually seeing something or if it’s a slight video artifact. The sound is excellent, although I did find the balance between dialogue and effects slightly in favour of the former. Then you have a wealth of bonus features including commentaries, featurettes, deleted scenes, and trailers, as well as a booklet with new writing on the film (which was not supplied for review).
The quality of the features is high, with commentaries from director Peli and Mary Beth McAndrews and Terry Mesnard from the Scarred For Life podcast. Both of these are excellent, with the latter particularly impressive due to the critical exploration of the film. There are lengthy interviews with Peli, Featherston, Sloat, and Ashley Palmer, who played the possessed girl Diane Micah finds on the internet, and these are all fascinating, although Peli’s may seem a tad redundant if you listen to his commentary.
Equally fascinating are the deleted scenes, which including two alternative endings. I must admit, I prefer one of them – the “throat” ending – to the actual ending of the film, as it feels more in turn with the nihilism of the picture, and less sensationalist, but it’s great to be able to see both of them. My only qualm is a regular one – none of the special features has closed-caption subtitles, which is unacceptable.
Saying that, Second Sight has put together an impressive package for Paranormal Activity that informs the film and its themes to a point where I think it improves it. I definitely came out the other side thinking better of the film, and that makes this set highly recommended.
Paranormal Activity is out on Blu-ray on 20th September from Second Sight Films.