Paranormal Activity is the horror film which was made for $30,000 and has since gone on to earn $240 million at the box office globally. This is astonishing, just as the size of horror audiences always astonishes me. Who are these people who enjoy being scared to death, and consider it a good night out? I don’t. Indeed, as I said to the critic who initially sat next to me at the screening, ‘I should warn you, I’m not very good at this sort of thing and I may well jump into your lap.’ At this point, he promptly got up and moved. I was, yes, minded to call out after him, ‘And you are no great shakes yourself...Robert!’, but, of course, did not have the courage. This is how fearful I am.
Anyway, this is a film which comes out of nowhere in every possible sense. There are no opening credits to speak of, and no closing credits at all, which will, I know, upset all those cinema-goers who like to sit there to the bitter end, blocking the aisle and your exit, so that they can find out who was responsible for providing Miss Kidman with a stool whenever she felt like sitting down. What I know I know only from the press notes, which say it was written, directed and filmed by Oren Peli, a young Israeli who moved to America and made Paranormal Activity in his own San Diego home in six days, the cheeky little monkey.
The basic premise is ingeniously simple, although not that original, as it relies on home-video footage being seen (by us) after the event, much like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, and so on. Still, as a premise, it does seem to be the gift that keeps on giving. Here, we have a young couple who have just moved into their first house together. She is Katie, a graduate English student, while he is Micah, a day-trader, whatever that is. They are played by the actors Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat. (Crikey, was the budget so small they couldn’t even afford to give their characters fictionalised names?) Whatever; Katie senses some paranormal activity in the house — nothing she can put her finger on exactly — so Micah purchases a video camera which, he believes, will help them in their quest for proof. Actually, he is much less interested in any quest for proof than he is in having a high-tech, high-def video camera, but that’s men for you. I’ve never met a man who, for example, can pass any kind of gadget shop without thinking a remote-control helicopter is an excellent idea even though it’s so obviously not.
So, Micah carries the camera around with him by day — for a ‘day-trader’, he doesn’t seem to spend much of the day doing any trading — and everything we see is what Micah has shot so, yes, our view of the world is often shaky and topsy-turvy. Our view of the world is possibly as a sock sees it from the tumble-drier. But it’s at night, when the camera is static and has been placed on a tripod at the foot of their bed, that it all spooks up. Not much, in fact, actually happens, at least not initially — the sound of the odd footstep; a creak — but it’s the waiting for something to happen that is absolutely terrifying. As Hitchcock once said, ‘There is no terror in the bang, just the anticipation of it,’ and Peli is masterful at that anticipation, the cheeky little monkey. No blood is spilt, there are no special effects, but the dread mounts like dread may never have mounted before. Scared? Listen, at one point, I wore my scarf over my head. What else was I to do? It’s not like I had a lap to jump into.
This is a scarily well-made scary little film, although it certainly isn’t flawless. Some of the footage supposedly shot by Micah just isn’t technically possible, for example. And the Ouija board is rather a mistake, I think. But the acting is supremely naturalistic and, for such a small-scale project, it does have an amazingly heightened effect. I did not enjoy this film because this is not the sort of film that I would ever enjoy, but I can see that those who do find this sort of film enjoyable will enjoy it. Personally, I am much more excited by the fact that there is so much money to be made from back-room movie-making and am now considering various options myself. I’m thinking torture porn. I could invite various critics round — including you, Robert! — and just offer to sit on their laps. That should do it. That should have them running from the house, screaming. I’ll be minted.