The surprise success of the microbudget indie horror film Paranormal Activity (Paramount Pictures) constitutes one of those pop-culture moments when you realize that mass taste is sometimes better than you give it credit for. This may not be the horror movie of the year—that crown still easily goes to Sam Raimi’s similarly themed Drag Me to Hell—but it’s good enough that its unexpected popularity is heartening. In a genre where a fresh mutilated corpse every 15 minutes has become a reasonable expectation, this slow-paced but relentless spooker is refreshingly un-extreme. It comes by its screams honestly, earning them with incremental, at times agonizing gradations of old-fashioned, what’s-that-noise-in-the-hallway suspense.
Though it’s a retro haunted-house movie at heart, Paranormal Activity is formally postmodern, departing from the same found-footage conceit as The Blair Witch Projectand Cloverfield. A title tells us that “[t]he families of Katie Featherstone and Micah Sloat” have authorized the use of the images we’re about to see. As it turns out, those are both the real-life names of the actors and the character names of the couple we’re about to spend 86 claustrophobic minutes with. Micah and Katie live together in San Diego, in a house that, while not a mansion, is pretty swank for a couple in their 20s: two stories, three bedrooms, a backyard pool. (I’ll get back to the significance of their apparent financial comfort later.)
In the first scene, Micah is setting up a home video camera in their bedroom, to Katie’s mild protests. They’ve been hearing some weird noises at night around the house, and Micah wants to prove to her that the creaks and rustlings are nothing but normal house-settling sounds (not that he seems all that confident himself). All night, every night, the camera sits fixed at their bedside as they sleep through a crescendo of unexplainable events. Doors open and close. Chandeliers swing. Bedclothes ruffle. None of this is sufficiently horrifying to run screaming out of the house about, but it’s enough to convince Micah to continue with the nightly recording, just in case.
The couple’s mutual conviction that the haunting is sort of like a mouse infestation, a niggling household problem to keep on top of, is one of the funnier things about Paranormal Activity, which doubles, in its less scary moments, as a domestic comedy. Micah trails Katie around with the camera as they squabble and bargain (he for on-camera sex, she for a moment of privacy). As the creepy nocturnal happenings escalate, each proposes a different solution: She wants to call in a demonologist to exorcise the place (an approach that, by this film’s logic, seems as rational and sound as getting a yearly mammogram). He wants to consult a Ouija board—not a popular idea with either Katie, her best friend, or the demon itself, who, when the couple has stepped out for dinner one night, sets the offending occult object on fire.
The writer/director, first-timer Oren Peli, bides his time to a sadistic degree, revealing only as much about the poltergeist as we need to know to keep us anxious. Katie has felt followed by an evil spirit since her house burned down in childhood. (Cut to the events of night No. 8.) A psychic she calls in for a consultation refuses to stay in the house. (Cut to night No. 9.) A childhood photograph of Katie—one that should have disappeared in that long-ago fire—surfaces in the attic. (Cut to night No. 10.) The film is rhythmically punctuated by these long, static shots of the couple sleeping, and we come to dread the nights as much as they do. When you’re watching time-lapse film of two people asleep in a dark room, it’s surprising how little it takes to scare you: The image of Katie getting out of the bed and standing stock-still next to it as the hours fast-forward past is inexplicably unsettling.
That’s all I’ll say of the minimalist plot, except to observe that, unless I misunderstood the ending completely, the last few seconds are a bit of a letdown. But since Paranormal Activity has been so widely discussed already—opinion is sharply divided—I’d like to end this review with my own possibly crackpot reading of the film as allegory for the credit crisis. As mentioned above, Micah and Katie live quite nicely for a couple of their age. His job is described only as “day trader,” Katie’s as “student,” and during the 20 or so days of home movies we witness, we never see either leaving the house for work or school. Even if the couple flees the house their overleveraged dollars have bought, Katie’s childhood demon will catch up with her eventually, as will Micah’s hubris about solving the haunting problem with no help from anyone else. Both of them—especially the day-trading, night-filming Micah—consistently overestimate their own ability to understand and manage the forces that threaten them. And the apparent consumerist complacency of the movie’s opening—as Micah fires up his new camera for the first time, Katie teases him about how much it must have cost—soon gives way to a far harsher focus on day-to-day survival. Though it never poses a question more abstract than “Where’s that scratching sound coming from?” Paranormal Activity is all about spiritual and ethical debts coming due. As we watch the doomed couple fall asleep night after night, we ask what the day traders never asked themselves: How long can they keep pretending everything’s all right?
Slate V: Critics on This Is It and other new releases