No surprises here: Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity, currently terrorizing people across North America, is genuinely scary. It’s also clunky, half-realized, and frustratingly compromised—none of which reduce its central, primal experiential heft. As far as inevitable comparisons are concerned, Paranormal Activity is no Blair Witch Project, as it misses out on that inadvertent masterpiece’s allegorical elegance (the film was downright Hawthornian in its portrait of mythical Americana seeking vengeance against interlopers) and technical coherence, not to mention its unwillingness to give up its ambiguities right to the final devastating image. One leaves Blair Witch with more questions than answers; Paranormal Activity has a more predictable shape, even if that shape also plays into elemental fears of nighttime. Day Night Day Night might have made for a more appropriate title in some ways: the former providing catharsis and relief, the latter bringing on irrationality and doubt—emotions mimicked in the experiences of the viewers. For all its damning quiet and general lack of razzle dazzle, Paranormal Activity lives or dies on the level of audience interaction; it plays off that immensely satisfying suck-in-your-breath-and-wait-and-exhale emotion that few artistic mediums can induce.
This is not to say that it necessarily rewards the viewers for their patience, or even properly confounds their expectations—the payoff is neither grandiose nor anticlimactic enough for this experiment to register as anything more than a surprising one-off. The relationship at its center—between the demon-haunted Katie (Katie Featherston) and the vaguely douchey Micah (Micah Sloat)—is plausibly acted and conceived, yet one could hardly call Paranormal Activity “character-driven”; we may spend all our time watching them freak out, fight, and make up, but the attempted intimacy of the film’s camcorder conceit only further distances them from us— they’re aware their emotions are being filtered through the many cameras Micah has set up around the house, so there’s an air of intentional performativity to their actions that makes them slightly less sympathetic. This is somewhat unavoidable, especially considering scenes in which Micah agrees to turn off the camera, such as when he’s apologizing to her for bringing a ouija board into the house despite her protestations. On the one hand it’s a relief that the characters (and filmmaker) are smart enough to not allow their most desperate relationship meltdowns to be captured on video; on the other hand, it creates an emotional ellipsis (they’re mad; the camera goes off and back on; they’ve made up) that distances them further from us.
The central unifying visual idea of Paranormal Activity is, even more than in Blair Witch, dubious: would Micah really keep filming his girlfriend day and night, especially when the demonic forces terrorizing her grow increasingly violent? As with Blair Witch‘s Heather, the one who wields the camera has to be painted as something of an asshole for the audience to believe in his or her directorial persistence. Yet with the earlier film, there seemed to be an implicit critique of sexist attitudes toward female filmmakers (by seizing upon power through the camera, her strength is deemed by the men around her—and the kneejerk audience—as witchlike), as well as just a general self-reflexivity about the process of constructing a narrative. Micah, on the other hand, seems more like an easy satiric target—the tech-head suburban male, filling his home with gadgetry that he finds more compelling than the woman he lives with, and with which, ultimately, he may be further harming her.
Nevertheless, despite the vaguely defined central couple and the somewhat sketchy offscreen demon that upends their lives (does it have pockets? then what’s with the photo in the attic?), Paranormal Activity is mightily effective, and perhaps the first haunted house film since Poltergeist to successfully make a bourgeois suburban tract home into the locus of genuine fear. The doors aren’t particularly creaky, there are no iron gargoyle gates, no ornate Gothic latticework. Instead, Oren Peli simply trains his camera on one room and lets our eyes wander over the space. From where will the threat come—the open door, with the terrifying darkness in the hallway beyond or on the bed with its central couple sleeping? Within or without? Millions of people are gladly watching a film in which they mostly are asked to stare at an unmoving shot of a silent room, just the slightest rumble on the soundtrack, and whether Peli is aware of his film’s unmistakable avant-garde vibe or whether he’s just very smart about severe budget limitations and this is simply his calling card for a big, noisy career, that’s still that’s pretty thrilling.