Horror films can be not-so neatly divided into two categories. There are those films which rely on blood and gore as well as cheap “jump” moments to elicit the scares, and then there are the films that take the far more psychological and disturbing approach of trying to get under the audience’s skin and unsettle them to the point where the film stays in their conscience long after they leave the theaters. By the time you’ve left the newest Friday the 13th or Saw movie, you’ve most likely forgotten the names of any of the killer’s victims, but after you watch The Exorcist or Let the Right One In for the first time, those stories are going to haunt you for much longer than the actual film itself. The horror genre is in a bit of a renaissance lately (though every great new release has its legacy tarnished by countless sequels not made by the original minds or with the same freshness that made the original so great), and few films from the 2000’s (except for the aforementioned Let the Right One In, it’s American remake Let Me In, and the terrifying The Descent) have generated such a strong (and polarizing) response from audiences since 2007’s Paranormal Activity, a genuinely creepy tale that works whether it’s your first or fifth viewing.
Shot in the same “hand-held camera/authentic ‘found’ footage” school of horror films like The Blair Witch Project (but actually scary), Paranormal Activity is a master-class on how a small budget and indie film conventions can lead to bigger scares and box-office profits than a big-budget soulless horror sequel such as any but the original Saw films. I believe it’s still one of the most profitable films of all time. The film’s plot is fairly simple, but it’s the execution that will stick with you long after it’s final credits roll. Micah and Katie are a young, well-to-do couple living in a fancy house in Texas. Throughout her entire life, Katie has been haunted by an unknown spirit which has mostly kept to making eerie noises and generally freaking Katie out but not harming her. When the hauntings re-occur, her boyfriend Micah buys a fancy video-camera and electronic audio recording equipment to try and capture the supernatural phenomena on tape. While things begin slowly with just a noise here or a door moving there, things spiral out of control very quickly, and it becomes obvious to both Katie and Micah that they are dealing with forces beyond their ken.
The film is an obvious adherent to the “less is more” school of tension building, and it works for this film in a way that is truly hard to describe. This is my fifth viewing of the film (I believe), and it was only slightly less terrifying this time around than it was the first. Rather than focusing on blood and guts and obvious violence, the film is far more deliberately paced. You never see the entity other than a shadow here or a powdered footprint there. The film places your senses on full alert as you find yourself scanning every inch of every frame of every scene trying to find some clue to warn you when things are about to get paranormal, and that sense of anxiety and tension is nearly overwhelming. I watched this film for the first time with a friend, and I was legitimately concerned she was going to have a panic attack because of how on edge this film made her. Similarly, even though I knew on this viewing when every door was going to slam and where shadow was going to appear (though I still noticed new things even on this viewing), that sense of dread and fear was just as strong.
It’s ironic that this movie popped up on my master list right now considering that the third film in the franchise opened this weekend (and shattered the horror movie opening weekend box office record). This film was made for a measly $15,000, but it made nearly $200 million at the box office, and this isn’t even including DVD sales where I’m sure it’s profits were even higher. While there were definitely better horror movies in the 2000’s and The Descent is more innately terrifying than Paranormal Activity, the horror genre was growing stale, and Paranormal Activity was just the sort of earth-shattering entry in the genre that we as viewers needed to remind us that scares can still come. I knew when I popped this film into my DVD player that it was a mistake (since I should be falling asleep soon). Now, I’ve virtually guaranteed that I’m going to be up for quite a bit after this so I don’t have to go to bed with this undeniably frightening tale as my last thoughts before I enter sleep because the terrifying world of Micah and Katie is the last thing I need to dream about.
Final Score: A-