Paranormal Activity review


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Horror goes in cycles and 2009 is the year the wheel turned to crush torture porn. Drag Me To Hell and Trick ’r Treat traded in ghoulish fun, Let The Right One In brought subtlety and poignancy, while Martyrs – the year’s outstanding horror movie – subverted the sub-genre to create, in director Pascal Laugier’s words, “anti-torture porn”.

And now Paranormal Activity returns triumphantly to the Val Lewton ethos: the less you’re shown, the more you shit yourself.

Made for $15,000 by freshman director Oren Peli (and set entirely in his own house), Paranormal Activity sees – or rather doesn’t, as is often the case – young couple Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat) terrorised by a ‘presence’.

Half serious, half taking the proverbial, Micah buys a camera and sets it up at the end of the bed. What appears on playback is spooky. Then scary. Then absolutely, positively, ohsweet- Jesus-NO!!! terrifying. So much so that Peli’s ingenious micro-movie is being hailed by some as the Scariest Film Ever Made.

What’s really frightening is just how simple it all is – so stripped down it makes The Blair Witch Project, with its intricate mythology and Maryland shoot, seem fussily elaborate.

Shot in just a week (!), all we have here is a slow-build shockumentary featuring two identifiable protagonists and set, primarily, in a single room haunted by minimal special effects and creative audio. And yet it inflicts deep psychological wounds.

Why? Because we care about this couple. Because Peli drills into our primal fears. And because the static set-up applied to each night-time bedroom scene is expert in its composition – a clock reading on the bottom right, bed in the middle, and to the left an open doorway leading to a barely visible hallway and, beyond, an inky back bedroom.

Not since Carpenter’s Halloween has the frame been used this ingeniously, viewers having to focus pull as they sweep left and right for the impending threat. Now that’s scary.

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Editor-at-Large, Total Film

Jamie Graham is the Editor-at-Large of Total Film magazine. You'll likely find them around these parts reviewing the biggest films on the planet and speaking to some of the biggest stars in the business – that's just what Jamie does. Jamie has also written for outlets like SFX and the Sunday Times Culture, and appeared on podcasts exploring the wondrous worlds of occult and horror.