I do have a soft spot for movies where there’s only one cameraman who is also a character (a diegetic camera), even though it requires some suspension of disbelief to work in a movie. After all, if you were trying to make a realistic film of, say, a huge monster terrorizing New York as filmed by an amateur cameraman, you’d be lucky to get a coherent image every twenty seconds and even luckier not to be vomiting on the first ten. But hey, it’s a movie about a monster stomping New York — fuck realism.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is another movie with a diegetic camera where the camera receives more attention than the premise — which is basically a haunted house. Well, okay, so it’s the girl who’s haunted, but she never leaves the house and the demon seems to get a kick out of making noises around the place, so it’s a goddamn haunted house. This particular unlucky girl is called Katie, and she seems to be a more interesting version of Christine from DRAG ME TO HELL, or maybe it’s just the movie that’s much better than that one hour and thirty-nine minutes of Sam Raimi masturbating. Katie has a boyfriend called Micah, who lives with her. Katie has been haunted by a demon since she was a child, and recently things have been getting worse. Wanting to help his girlfriend and to get some impressive footage, Micah buys a camera in order to film them both sleeping, and any apparitions from the bothersome hellspawn.
Which boils down to haunted house. In fact, this is one of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY’s greatest flaws — even in the face of overwhelming evidence that there is indeed a demon in the house, and that this demon indeed doesn’t like them very much, and that it’s indeed a fucking demon and not Casper The Friendly Ghost, the two protagonists always sleep in the house they’re being haunted in. They call a specialist (or Mr. Exposition, as I like to call this character that EVERY horror movie requires at some point), who explains that leaving the house will do them no good, since it’s Katie being haunted, not the house.
Yes, surely going to a hotel, or sleeping on friends’ houses, or on a park bench, or in the middle of a party aren’t better alternatives than sleeping in the one place you’re bound to be haunted in. You could argue that they couldn’t do it forever, but for most of the movie the characters are waiting for a demonologist — apparently the only demonologist in the planet — to become available and help them; surely they could have bought some time until then, instead of staying in the damn house suffering from increasingly dangerous apparitions. “Oh, they didn’t want to put their friends in jeopardy as well!” Yes, this kind of selfless behaviour is exactly what to expect from pants-shittingly terrified human beings.
However, Katie and Micah turn out to be likeable protagonists, and their failure to react to the situation in a more self-preservational manner can actually be forgiven considering their personalities and circunstances. Micah walks the thin line between absolute asshole and lovable manchild with impressive balance, and while I wanted to punch him at times, his sense of humor always got the best of me (which is exactly the effect he has on his girlfriend, so she’s immediately relatable, also I feel a little gay now). Always looking forward to the next apparition so he can capture supernatural footage, Micah seems to be unimpressed by the demon’s technique, while Katie, who has been putting up with this for far longer, doesn’t want to tease the creature into raising its cruelty standards.
Working with guidelines instead of scripts on how to behave and what to discuss for every scene — and therefore ad-libbing the dialogue, all this according to IMDB — actors Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston act naturally and convincingly, making it clear how much their characters care about one another while having their own interests at heart: Katie wants the demon to go away, Micah wants it to do something amazing (but preferably harmless) for his camera. The actors’ impressive characterization is the main reason their slow and some times plain dumb reactions to the demon can be forgiven.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY also pulls off a diegetic camera that doesn’t require you to change your perception of reality to accept it; throughout the film, the camera is placed carelessly on tables, forgotten while something happens in another room, poorly-angled, but never to a point where it actually bothers the viewer. Director Oren Peli cleverly came up with situations where the camera being forgotten or badly-aimed actually enhances the effect he’s going for, since this is a film that relies on your imagination to be scary. And the clumsy camerawork is deceptively clumsy, just enough to give us the impression it’s an amateur filming it, while still allowing us to see what’s going on when that’s the director’s intention — an example of good diegetic camerawork.
And is it scary? Fuck yes. And this coming from a guy who can sleep watching THE EXORCIST (but who still can’t fucking play SILENT HILL II without shaking, I admit). The director escalates the tension very well by having the demon become increasingly angry and dangerous, and by leaving the protagonists’ totally helpless; especially, of course, when they’re asleep. The sleep sequences, in fact, are the film’s obvious highlight and live up to the hype, being absurdly tense without resorting to typical horror film techniques or flashy special effects (except in one sequence, when it’s called for). Commendably, Oren Peli avoids repetition despite the rigidly repetitive structure, coming up with new situations and scarier sequences that go above and beyond the couple’s bedroom.
The film’s ending, however, comes unexpectedly and can be kind of disappointing for that reason. But even so, despite some script flaws, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is a well-acted and well-directed horror film that more than lives up to its ambition: to scare. It lets your imagination to do most of the work, and imagination has always been a fantastic horror technique.