** Major Spoiler Alert **
PlotParanormal Activity is a “found footage” film about a young couple, Micah and Katie, who have moved into a new house in San Diego in September 2006. As the story opens, Micah is setting up a camera as Katie tell us that she has been haunted periodically throughout her life by an evil presence. Micah is determined to capture evidence of this entity on film.
What This Film Does RightWow, where to begin? Let’s start with the fact that they focused on believability, they eschewed cheap gore, and they did exactly what we discussed earlier in the week: they used human nature against the audience. Three great choices!
In terms of believability, they chose a well-known bit of mythology that most of us fear deep down: demonic possession, and they handled it extremely well. For example, to make the audience buy into the demon, they ratcheted up the danger each night as the movie progressed. This made the demon seem more plausible because we feel that we understand how it gained its power: the more they fight, the more the thing grows, and when Micah buys the Ouija board, it really becomes strong. Since you see the cause and effect, it all starts to feel natural to you.
This idea also plays on the part of human nature that looks for patterns. By ratcheting up the demon’s powers and giving the demon more power to manipulate our world each day, the writer establishes a pattern which the audience will recognize and extrapolate. The result is a constant feeling of dread as we see this thing getting stronger and stronger without end. That is ominous to us and makes us feel trapped because we know it will soon be too powerful for us to handle. The writer then makes the characters oblivious to this pattern which triggers our need to warn people of a danger. And since we can’t fulfill that need, we end up feeling helpless and anxious.
Beyond this, the director expertly plays upon our instinctual fears. The demon attacks at night. It cannot be seen or fought. It can be next to you and you wouldn’t know it. It cannot be escaped because it can find Katie anywhere. In fact, it has followed her since her youth. Each of those things terrifies us and triggers our “fight or flight” mechanisms. Then they go further. In one scene, we watch as Katie gets out of bed and stands by the bed for more than half an hour watching Micah sleep. This is amazingly creepy to us because we are completely vulnerable when we sleep and the idea of someone standing over us as we sleep is a terrifying one. It also suggest unnatural behavior on the part of Katie, which tells us that the demon is gaining the power to possess her.
Then, as we near the ending, everything begins to fall apart. We can’t trust Micah anymore because he stopped Katie from calling the demonologist and then he took away her cross and burns it. At best, this is bad judgment and cruel. At worst, this is the final straw which leaves her defenseless to the demon. And either way, he is clearly a hazard at this point. At the same time, Katie puts us into an impossible position. It is time to flee the house. Even Katie agrees. But then Katie suddenly refuses. Yes, she is showing signs of possession, but what do you do with her at that point? If you care about her, and the audience does, then you can’t just abandon her. But it’s clear you can’t stay either. And Micah shows no ability to force her to leave. Thus, the audience is faced with an amazingly difficult decision and ultimate must choose a path they know they will regret.
(spoiler alert reminder)
Finally, we come the ending. There is a huge twist here in a way as the ending unfolds in a most unexpected way. Indeed, throughout this film, we are constantly told that the danger is to Katie. The demon wants her and it has followed her. She cannot escape it... but Micah can, he can just walk away. In conformance to this, she is terrified of the demon and Micah is not. What we don’t suspect watching the film, however, is that the demon will use her to kill Micah. So it comes as a real shock when that happens. This shock is genuinely frightening because it wasn’t something the audience considered. The entire film had built up to the demon taking or killing Katie, and now it instead killed Micah. Unexpected twists like this strongly enhance the terror of a horror movie. The film even does a fantastic job of not showing what is happening, which leaves the audience on the edge of their seats as they wait to find out.
To sum this up, this is a brilliant film. Rather than trying to scare you with fake gore and a horrific ending, this film steadily builds your level of terror step by step by playing on fears you already have, by making you feel helpless in light of the characters’ mistakes and lack of knowledge, and by making each scene count. In fact, you never know what will happen in any scene, if anything, and that keeps you nervous and on edge. Then it finishes strongly by expanding the threat in a way we should have seen coming, but didn’t.
The end result is a truly terrifying film that drew in amazing numbers. With a budget of just $16,687, this film made an incredible $210,391,025, and it was well-deserved.