Paranormal Activity (15)

3.00

Horror that offers more fun than fear

The publicity surrounding Paranormal Activity has concentrated on the paucity of its budget – a mere $15,000 – and the terror it will inspire in you. Both these claims should be taken with a pinch of salt. The Blair Witch Project, the plainest precedent for this film, was supposed to have cost $20,000; but when you'd added in the costs of editing, sound-mixing and a bit of discreet re-shooting prior to release to the general public, the final tab came to nearer three-quarters of a million – still ridiculously small by Hollywood standards, and still an astonishingly tiny fraction of its box-office take. By all accounts, the multiples for Paranormal Activity are even more mouth-watering. As for terror: I suspect that to anyone who has sat through any of the Saw franchise, or indeed The Blair Witch Project, this will seem very milk-and-water. I scare easily, and in general find the modern horror film, with its imperative to turn the stomach and loosen the sphincters, repugnant; but this I could take with equanimity – with a good deal of pleasure, in fact.

The film opens, with pleasing specificity, on 18 September 2006, in suburban San Diego: Micah (Micah Sloat), a day-trader, has just bought an expensive video camera, and won't stop playing with it – everything we see is what he films (a significant economy for Oren Peli, the writer-director-producer-editor: Sloat acts as his cinematographer as well as one of his stars). What we see at first is him larking around with his girlfriend, Katie (Katie Featherston); but he has bought the camera for a reason. They have been kept awake by mysterious noises, and Katie feels oppressed by a presence in the house; Micah hopes to capture something paranormal on film. At night, he sets the camera on a tripod in their bedroom, with the door open to the landing. At first, the camera records odd but by no means horrifying events: the bedroom door moves for no reason; there are bangs and strange snuffling noises; Katie wakes up and stands motionless by the bed for more than an hour, staring at Micah, before going outside. (One of Peli's smartest innovations is his use of the fast-forward as a means of creating suspense: several times, you see the numbers on the night-time video racing forward – when they stop, and we're in real time again, you know something weird is about to happen.) Bit by bit, the occurrences escalate, as does Katie's terror – as she confesses to visiting a psychic, she believes the presence is after her: it haunted her in childhood until, for no reason the fire department could ascertain, her house burned down.

The setting and the medium – the hand-held video, I mean, not the psychic – are blatantly and self-consciously modern; but the associations the film inspired in me were old-fashioned: Peli seems to have channelled the spirit of M R James. James's precepts for the ghost story included "the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear any day" and "the ghost should be malevolent or odious"; and he also suggested that "two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are... the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo."

Check, check, check and – with reservations – check. Featherston and Sloat are both compellingly ordinary. Not just Hollywood ordinary, but real-world ordinary, a fact that may, sadly, limit their Hollywood futures. The presence is certainly malevolent (just how malevolent we don't learn until the very end); the atmosphere is claustrophobic. But this is where my reservations come in: although the presence's activities and the accumulation of information about its history and intentions are cleverly paced, the domestic set-up comes to seem more and more implausible. Katie's distress, and its relationship to an episode in her childhood, don't compel her to call her family; Micah never for a moment wonders whether there might be some psychiatric explanation for all this; the psychic gives them the name of a demonologist qualified to help, but even though Katie begs Micah to let her call, he keeps on coming up with ever more gratingly flimsy and contrived excuses for the pair of them to stay in isolation. He also has a nasty habit of sticking his camera in her face even at moments of distress: the supernatural presence we can believe in; but that Katie would stick with this jerk – that's pushing it. Even as the fear mounts, so does exasperation with the contrivances of Peli's script.

But the film has a winning playfulness, visible in the sparse but unashamedly cheap special effects: at one point, Micah insists on putting talcum powder down on the floor to see if the presence will leave any trace – the paw-like marks left by unseen feet look like an intentional allusion to the invisible id-monster in Forbidden Planet. It's here, in the film's attitude, that the resemblance to James is strongest: Paranormal Activity sets out to please, to create a frisson that entertains as much as it scares. That's my kind of horror.

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering