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Paranormal Activity

Year: 2007
Production Co: Blumhouse Productions
Studio: Paramount
Director: Oren Peli
Producer: Jason Blum
Writer: Oren Peli
Cast: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat

I remember seeing a short trailer on some news website about 18 months before the juggernaut hit and thinking it looked like a pretty good idea. I forgot it soon after, assuming it'd be one of dozens that would show up on video a year or so later and I'd catch up with it eventually.

How it captured the imagination of everyone from festival audiences across America to Steven Spielberg is oft-repeated movie legend, but I was more interested in just how spontaneous fan demand really was in an age when not even Tarantino devotees can return a film's profit by themselves (Grindhouse).

The now-famous website that invited people to click a button and demand it be played in their city was a neat gimmick, but I suspect the Blair Witch Project-like viral thing was, if not pre-planned, at least more stage managed than Dreamworks (Paramount in other territories) would have us believe. For a movie critic and a cynic, there's a strong tendency to take such a worldy-wise, nothing-surprises-me view, and the marketing is the only thing to pick on, because I couldn't find fault with the movie.

I can see why some have complained about it. There was a structured progression of exposition/scare/exposition/scare that would have annoyed the gorehounds. But when you're as much a horror movie wimp as I am you'll welcome any respite from the scares as you can get. What's even more amazing when you look back is that there was only one classic horror movie jump-scare (Micah's altercation with the camera during the climax) in the whole thing.

Shot for no money in no time in the director's own house, cute San Diego couple Katie and Micah (playing themselves, or at least characters with their own names) are being visited by a supernatural force in the night. Katie explains that she's had similar episodes since she was a girl, and Micah just thinks it's cool, bringing home a new camcorder he can attach to the laptop and capture whatever happens while the pair sleep.

So yes, it's another YouTube-inspired 'real footage' movie, put together from what was left in the camera. As the visits get scarier, Micah gets more immature, almost wanting to encourage the being to attack just so he has the proof on film. In many ways he's the antagonist rather than the never-glimpsed presence, at times so stupid and uncaring about his girlfriend's unravelling mental state you want to slap him.

There's a story there – not all the threads of it (such as the photo in the attic) taken and run with – but all the background you need is effectively told. It's in the night time sequences, much of it in fast motion as the house descends deeper into the small hours, where the real value lies.

With no idea what this presence is or what it wants, we have no idea what it'll do. Whether it's a huge bang downstairs that wakes them, the bedroom door slamming and the couple realising it's standing in the room with them or something invisible dragging Katie slowly out of bed by the ankle, your skin will crawl quite exquisitely while your heart thumps in the sort of dreadful anticipation true horror movies should be about.

Writer/director Peli knows his paranormal phenomena and he puts some of the classics – lights going on and off, things being moved, unexplained noises – to great effect. He also has an eye for casting, with the pretty and vulnerable Featherston the sort of girl many guys wish they could protect from a ghostly visitor.

If Saw and its ilk at one end and the endless horror remakes at the other are like Goldilocks' too hot and too cold porridge, Paranormal Activity gets it just right.

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