Paranormal Activity is the latest in an increasingly long line of films to harness the realistic properties of the video camera. The mobility, shakiness, flatness of image and the naturalistic lighting give a greater illusion of reality than the warmth and depth of 35 millimetre film. But a film like this is not content to simply capture a sense of reality on screen, but like The Blair Witch Project (1999) before it saw fit to take the fabrication to a higher plane by suggesting the material seen in the film was found footage. Unfortunately the grainy home movie material is as much an indication of the opposite. This is a trick that has now been played to death. The use of non actors adds to the illusion, as does the lack of credits at the beginning and the end of the film, but the test of such a proposition is whether such a technique can be extended for the duration of the film - and the answer of course is no. The director Oren Peli uses a number of straightforward and predictable formal devices to create tension and suspension. Devices and modes which would not be apparent in the amateur documentary footage of two individuals terrified out of their wits by spectral visitations.
A certain amount of tension is generated by the regular night vision shots of the couples bedroom. These occur throughout and indicate that something is about to happen. The activity steadily builds (the build to a climax is another indicator that narrative form is being adhered too) toward a tempo of increasing violence. But instead of becoming unbearable these sequences become the only thing too look forward to. Katie and Micah’s relationship deteriorates due to the constant tension and exhaustion of the situation, but more specifically due to Micah’s half arsed efforts to solve the problem himself. One such disastrous attempt involves a Ouija board, though it does afford the film one of its creepiest moments as the demon makes a mess of the board. Naturally the characters remain totally under developed, though we get a little back story for Katie, we are never given the childhood backdrop to her earlier encounters with the demon. Micah meanwhile remains a totally blank slate. This lack of depth is probably an attempt by the director to maintain the reality of the piece (after all why would a couple in a relationship need to discuss their backgrounds to camera) but this just gives Peli an opportunity to avoid the headache of character development.
© Shaun Anderson 2010