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

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Arts and Entertainment
Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters performs at Suncorp Stadium on February 24, 2015 in Brisbane, Australia.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans had initially distanced himself from the possibility of taking the job

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
British author Matt Haig

books
Arts and Entertainment
Homeland star Damian Lewis is to play a British Secret Service agent in Susanna White's film adaptation of John le Carre's Our Kind of Traitor

Film
Latest stories from i100
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.

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map
    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
    Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

    Marks and Spencer

    Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
    'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

    'We haven't invaded France'

    Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
    Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

    Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

    The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

    Remembering 7/7 ten years on

    Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
    Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

    They’re here to help

    We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
    What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

    What exactly does 'one' mean?

    Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue