With the imminent release of Second Sight’s special edition of ‘Paranormal Activity’ I thought it time to re visit the film which effectively brought the Blair Witch home.
I will be honest here, I remember when this film was released, and not being one for the hype train, I will accept that I probably didn’t give the film its due. In a time where horror had stalled a little bit, I found the film’s stripped back aesthetic and concept somewhat regressive, dismissing the ‘found footage’ POV as a one (very cheap) trick pony.
Its volume spikes and peak-a-boo jump scares might have been enough to rattle teenagers’ nerves at the cinema, and an expansive promotional campaign might have convinced casual film fans that they were indeed about to experience a “genuinely frightening experience” but what possible contribution could it make to the genre which had already been diluted to parody by a rash of predicable 15-rated horror films?
Turns out a fair bit!
What I didn’t see coming was the impact it would have on horror releases. For years to come as found footage fever saw previously ‘lost tapes’ being recovered from any location which could conceivably be haunted – no matter how tenuous it might be!
With each release, each clone suffering from a media form of genetic degradation, it proves that whilst its true that any muppet with a handy-cam can make a POV horror, it takes a lot more than just the concept to make it effective.
Upon rewatching the Blu-ray (with a slightly more objective eye this time) I will accept that I was wrong, ‘Paranormal Activity’ does have a lot more going on under the hood than first meets the eye.
If you’ve missed the film first time round, the plot of ‘Paranormal Activity’ focuses on a young couple and their documentation of what they believe to be a haunting within their family home. Convinced there’s something supernatural in their house they decide to grab a camera to film 24/7 in hopes to capture the spooky goings on. What they, and of course now us who view the film through the entirety of the lens, gets, is essentially a montage of tension building and jump scare set pieces which are both numerous and undeniably effective.
Firmly embracing the ‘less is more’ mantra, the long periods of this movie are spent looking and listening to – well frankly nothing. For many of the night-time scenes the static camera lifelessly peers into the blackness of the couple’s bedroom. As the couple lie sleeping in bed, the camera continues to watch on forcing us to keep a keen eye out for fleeting shadows, subtle movements and of course wait in fraught anticipation of some form of ear-splitting bump in the night. One thing I would say here is that the films timing is impeccable, with these scenes of ‘nothing’ just lingering long enough for your own imagination and nervousness to take hold. Imagine going into a bathroom in the dead of night and just stare in the mirror – for 10 seconds no problem, but just try to stand there for a minute and try not to freak yourself out about what is obviously going to jump-up out or behind you!
The film’s scenes of exposition vs. scare take place in an alternating sequence of day and night. In the day the couple talk about the night’s events, trying to make sense of what they’ve witnessed and consulting ‘experts’ about what they’ve experienced. These parts are where so many films in the POV sub-genre fall over, as they either drone on with poor acting and cringe inducing dialogue, or they just transcend into mic-clipping screaming to the point of annoyance. Here, however, the concept is sound, and the performances by the two leads are actually pretty good considering the limitations of their roles, and whilst there’s a couple of supporting roles which don’t hold up quite as well – the demonologist in particular spouts the most genetic drivel possible for example, I would say that there’s a degree to which you would relate to the couple and their reactions should you be in their place – an a justification of the whole camera POV concept in general. The pacing in the ‘day’ sections do struggle towards the end – and even at 86 minutes I still feel there’s further scope for the editing to have been a bit sleeker, but that’s really my only niggle.
It is with the scares, however, that this film really comes into its own. The start of the film is tense, and its jolts relatively benign. Loud noises alone dominate the films first couple of acts, but once the film gets to a certain point in its exposition the threat is elevated and along with it, the tension and creativity of the scares. I wont ruin it too much if you’ve not seen the film, but there are some really great ideas which really being the entity to life without breaking the concept or aesthetics of the movie. Some of these ideas will be developed on in the numerous sequels – the sheet being thrown into the background being a memorable example, but still, considering this would be the first time set pieces such as these would have been used in this context, I was impressed at the ingenuity of some of the sequences – again considering the budget and restrictions of the POV.
Its clearly not as easy as it seems to pull this off effectively as countless imitations prove!
Overall, I feel this review/retrospect has gone on for long enough and so I will conclude with two further points. Firstly, Second Sight have put together a really cool looking special edition of a contemporary classic here, with the assortment of extra and awesome looking box-art and format so if you’ve a hankering to relive the experience again, you can’t go far wrong here. Finally, given modern society’s obsession with viral videos and reality TV, each ladened with their own abundance of creative lo-fi practical effects, this film has aged impressively well. Not only does the film hold up as a piece of entertainment, when put alongside modern POV/FF films such as the amazing ‘Host’ Paranormal Activity was somewhat ahead of its time.
Now, watch both those films back-to-back – that’s a movie night your nerves won’t be thanking your for!