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.