There is no greater thrill than tedium, and no more effective target of empathy than dull individuals. No jest intended – our daily lives are brimming with tedious busywork, and we are ourselves unremarkable and straightforward people. Cinema tends to depict the best and brightest committing actions most amazing and death-defying; so it goes that the truly effective films focus upon relatively humdrum people. Paranormal Activity is a new and welcome addition to the first-person horror subgenre, and the fairly spartan narrative grapples with that most ridiculous and shopworn of subjects, the haunted house. There is a great deal more to it, but the film respects the audience enough to give it time to suspend disbelief and fall into the story. Verisimilitude is difficult to come by in the horror genre, and impossible when ghosts are involved, but the vapid lead characters living ordinary lives set a bland tone that becomes viscerally effective when the shit hits the fan.
Katie is a college student and Micah is a day trader, and they seem happy enough living in San Diego. She is cool and practical, he is a misguided but tech-savvy doofus, and they are “engaged to be engaged” in a setting of domestic tranquility. The film is shot from a hand-held camera, and this is the storytelling device that catches an incomplete history about a poorly-described menace that has taken shape in their lives. Specifically, Katie believes a paranormal being is following her. She first felt its presence at the tender age of eight. Later, after she began to meet boys, she felt it again– just before her home burned to the ground. Now it has returned shortly after she moves in with Micah. One of the problems with first-person filming is that there is generally little reason to carry around a camera or be persistent with shooting; this crippled Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project since any one of the idiots involved should have dropped the thing and ran when time allowed. Micah is bent upon recording some proof that there is an otherworldly presence in his house, either out of a sense of protection for his girlfriend or because he is an obtuse douchebag. He seeks to expose whatever threatens his new house with provocative means, chief among them his camera. The technique works well enough, and the story progresses via hints at the underlying problem. Fortunately, Paranormal Activity does not spell out the force behind the disturbances, and only faintly hints at a motive. If you can figure it out, then your experience is the richer for it, but you can be content with the pall of suspense.
Since Halloween and its Reagan-era offspring (notably the Friday the 13th series), discomfort with sexuality has been a powerful theme driving the minds of murderers. The couple in the film seem to get along, which is entirely the problem. This thing made Katie’s acquaintance as a child, and was content to reduce her home to cinders the moment boys looked in her direction. Once she became a sexually active woman, a long-festering rage was unleashed. Paranormal Activity has a subtext of distress at sexual freedom, as well as the suggestion that a placid domestic setting is but an illusion easily upset by the past. This is hardly an alien concept given how many abhorrent crimes have been committed against women and children by an ex-boyfriend or husband, seemingly out of thin air, though that hatred was simmering for some time before the hammer fell. I found it interesting that as Micah became more curious and resourceful at unveiling the identity of their adversary, the greater the response from that adversary after nightfall. Perhaps this suggests that the past and its unsavory elements should remain buried, as terrible things or events gain new life in the light of day. Regardless of your interpretation, the point is that there is material here to dwell upon, rather than the usual brainless gaggle of horror film dipshits who serve only to soil murder weapons.
The cinematography is deceptively simple, with shots blocked so as to conceal perspective and create a tight atmosphere that becomes choking, while leaving the space open enough to deny the viewer a sense of safety. The most valuable player of Paranormal Activity, however, is the steady tone it maintains. The dialogue is frequently quite funny, though the humor becomes more macabre with time and the characters appear to be whistling in the dark. The characters share a solid rapport, and a ridiculous story is sold partly by their unblinking performances. As the days pass, and the faint creaks become staccato cracks in the night, the tone does not waver for a second. And through it all, the story is about familiar people doing ordinary things until the circumstances veer far out of their control.
I belabor the point of how boring the film is initially, as this is an intentional technique to place later events in sharp relief. A rhythm is built. And this rhythm creates a gloomy tension that – if you can truly place yourself in the character’s shoes – generates genuine anxiety. Fright can be created from cheap jump-cuts and loud noises. True horror, however, comes from inevitability; you can see where the story is going, and there is no escape.