- RatedNC16 /GenreHorror
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Rating: 4 out of 5
There are many so-called horror films that rely on well-worn conventions to attempt to cow you into submission, and if you're an avid movie fan, you're probably desensitized and jaded. Most of you will recognise when a scene goes quiet or when it's framed a certain way, that something loud and (yawn) 'scary' is about to happen.
Once in a while, though, a filmmaker comes along to demonstrate the startling power of movies, and how they don't have to stick to a formula (at least not a commonplace one) to be successful in telling a story.
In the case of Paranormal Activity, first-time director Oren Peli has become the feel-good story of the movie season by putting forth one of the truly feel-scared movies in a long time. His is a film that does not use fancy camera tricks or post-production effects, features a small cast of unknowns, and was shot in just one week on a reported budget of only US$15,000.
And it fulfils the basic criteria for a horror film: it is truly, unequivocally scary. Even if someone gives away the ending, one believes the film would be just as frightening, because its storytelling technique, a mockumentary style akin to that of The Blair Witch Project (1999), is so smart and unrelenting.
For the most part, the film is centred on just two characters, a young, good-looking couple living in a house in San Diego, California. The story begins with a seemingly innocuous home-movie project. Katie (Katie Featherstone) and Micah (Micah Sloat) explain to the camera that they have decided to document the strange, hitherto harmless hauntings that she has experienced since childhood.
No matter where Katie has lived, the paranormal activity has followed her - a clever plot device, because this justifies her staying trapped within the home and not running away. The house setting becomes claustrophobic and foreboding, as each night, through the eyes of the camera, the audience is forced to view strange goings-on while the couple sleep, peacefully at first, exhausted at the end.
It is thought that the use of the camera is agitating the 'spirit' as the haunting intensifies. Taking a slow-boil approach, the director expertly turns the screw on the audience. He puts them through the ringer by having the macho Micah stubbornly antagonising the supernatural force with shouts of "Is that all you got?!", his refusal to relinquish the camera, and his insistence to use a Ouija board to communicate with, and possibly embolden, the unknown evil.
There are other simple yet intelligent ideas and techniques in the film that I shall not disclose. It has to be said, however, that Peli's film, following in the footsteps of Blair Witch and a lesser-known 1998 horror film called The Last Broadcast, preys more on your own imagination than anything advanced filmmaking can show you. The use of an open bedroom door, leading into darkness, has never been more effective.
The film has the uncanny ability to stay with you long after it ends - a rare attribute for most modern horror movies, save The Ring movies - and if it can cause the skin to crawl on even the most hardened film critics, or at least this film critic of ten years, that's certainly saying something.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!" Michael Corleone, The Godfather, Part III (1990).