In the 70s we had the exploitation films, in the 80s we had the slasher film craze, and ever since the end of the 90s it has seemed that we've been stuck in an unending Groundhog Day-loop of found footage horror films. Ever since The Blair Witch Project burst onto the scene (even though there had been more than a dozen films previously that had played around with the format), it seems that nearly every would-be filmmaker with a video camera has been cranking them out. Unfortunately for Blair Witch, it wasn't particularly good. It was memorable to most people because they hadn't really seen something that attempted to take use the low-grade POV video as its own cinéma vérité, but on it's own the acting was nominal and the scares and suspense few and far between.
That's why my next entry into our BC October Frights is 2007's Paranormal Activity. Created on less than a shoestring budget (only $15,000), it wound up bringing in a worldwide box office haul just shy of $200 million. With a cast of only ten people (of which four are uncredited momentary blips), it found the right balance in using a single fixed-position camera to capture the progressively building determination that something is about to go very badly.
Katie and Micah (played respectively by Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat – that's right the film is so low-budget that the two lead actor's first names are the same as their real ones) are a couple who have just moved into a new home. As the couple go about their setting up house, Katie reveals that she feels that an evil presence has been following her since she was a child. Interested in finding out if anything is happening outside of the corner of their eyes, Micah sets up a video camera to capture everything that happens.
Things start with catching noises, or doors opening & closing on their own, and over the next eighteen nights things go from creepy to deadly.
What Makes It Great
The tension. There's not piles of gore, it's a very simple shorthand. A static scene of two people asleep in bed, nothing else happening. The audience gets progressively more tense, and then the sheet moves something is moving under the sheets at the sleeping couple. Produced, directed, and written by Oren Peli, he coaxes solid performances from both of his leads and uses the audience's expectations to coax out their fears by anticipation. When the entity finally begins to play rough, that earlier spartan approach only makes it all the more effective.
Does It Hold Up?
Definitely. While here have been legions of found footage films before and since, there are few that had distilled it down to the parts to make one jump at their own fears of what is happening in the dark. I'll totally admit that I've never set up a video camera to do a sleep study purely because I don't want to know if something else is moving around in the middle of the night. When a film leaves you with a long-term phobia, like Jaws did for many about going swimming in the ocean, it's a mark of a job well done.