The masterstroke of Paranormal Activity, Oren Peli’s 2007 (but just widely released) horror film is not its use of old fashion scare techniques that leave the horror mostly to the imagination, though it certainly helps. Nor is it the premise of the film being entirely culled from “real” home video footage. It has been done before, even by horror master George A. Romero in his sub par Diary of the Dead. Thankfully, in the case of Paranormal Activity , the premise if effectively used.
No, the masterstroke of the film is the way in which it plays with the concept of possession, with the unseen demon functioning as a doppelganger of male protagonist Micah (Micah Sloat), whom we discover over the course of the film is as possessive of Katie (Katie Featherson) as the demon which has haunted her since she was eight. Katie is nothing more than a mere possession to Micah in a house full of them, demonstrating his power and status as a successful, wealthy male, and the events of the film play out a very apt dramatization of the arrogance of the generation which has wealth and technology at its finger tips.
The set up of the film is simple: Micah, in an attempt to capture evidence of Katie’s supposed haunting, convinces her to allow him to tape the mysterious events around the house on his brand new camera. As the evidence starts to mount that something is indeed haunting Katie, Micah becomes even more focused on recording the events and finding a way to rid Katie of the demon by his own methods, while Katie simply wants him to quit. All the while, the actions of the demon are getting worse, and increasingly dangerous.
For feminist film critics, particularly those who interested in the work of Laura Mulvey, Paranormal Activity is a God-send, providing perhaps one of the most complex examples of the concept of “the Gaze” in recent cinema. The viewpoint of the camera is unquestionably male, and absolutely controlling. Micah’s use of the camera reduces Katie to the position of mere subject, and his manipulation of the situation works towards negating any sense of agency Katie has over her own situation. The film subtly hints towards this early on as we learn about Micah and Katie’s life from a visiting psychic: while, not married, Micah and Katie live together in Micah’s large, well furnished house (sadly, I cannot remember what Micah's job is, though I believe it may have been a stock broker. If anyone reading this remembers, feel free to correct me). From the pool, the large screen television, to the fact that the high end camera he is using cost him “half” of his day’s wages, money for Micah is a symbol of his status as the empowered male. Katie on the other hand is a student, is looking to work as a teacher, a low paying position in the Unite States. Katie is thus reliant upon Micah and his wealth, and their conversations throughout the film in which Katie gives into Micah’s plans usually reveal a level of narcissism on Micah's part, and his sense of possession over Katie.
The irony of course is that Micah reveals much more about himself without being in the position of the subject. Despite his attempts to control and understand Katie’s situation, he is ultimately unable to do so: Katie resists the subject position, unintentionally, in that the camera is not really able to provide any real understanding of her situation and her history with the demon: we gain no real insight into why the demon is after her; mysteries about how the house she lived in as a child go unsolved; and even the horrific final scene of the film (SPOILER) in which a possessed Katie throws Micah's body at the camera is a denial of the subject position (END SPOILER). Instead, we come to know about Micah and his beliefs and ideas, witness his failings as a partner in a relationship, and his false sense of empowerment. Some of the best material in the film is when we witness Micah performing research, either coming to conclusions that the psychic had already informed him of, or mainly searching the internet for information rather than looking to any reasonable experts. Even more telling are the brief times he wishes to be on camera: he tries, and fails, at a number of points to convince Katie to engage in “extra curricular activities” with him while the camera is on. If that isn’t telling about his ego, what is?
Oddly enough, the film could easily have not been a horror film, but rather a drama about the dissolution of Micah and Katie’s relationship, with another man being in the place of the demon. While the demon may be creating the external pressure on the relationship, it is Micah’s actions which literally bring about the further terror and end the relationship in the most final of ways. Micah is fully capable of taking actions to salvage and save his relationship, the only power he really does have, and yet is only focused upon what power he does not. By the time he comes to realise this, it is too late.
This is all just the tip of the iceberg of course: the material here is far too rich to be summed up in a simple analysis/review. Of course, this is why Paranormal Activity puts most recent horror films to shame (well, recent American horror films that is). It is a film with a brain, one which actually seeks to look at some very relevant, and uncomfortable, topics about modern relationships and attitudes towards sex, class, knowledge, and the spiritual. Nor does it pander to the audience, requiring viewers to piece together the narrative and themes on their own, all at the cost of $15 000 for the entire film.
Ah yes, the infamous $15 000 cost. While I am certainly not advocating that all films cut their budgets back to nothing, Paranormal Activity’s success is something that filmmakers and studio executives should reflect upon. Here is a genre film with limited special effects and no special gimmicks, like 3D, aka the biggest-waste-of-money-in-some-time. Simple acting, writing, and directing have beeb enough to drive people into theatres to see this film. Not only that, the film utilized an effective web based strategy to have the public DEMAND to see the film for an advertising campaign. It might be time to finally ask yourselves if spending more really makes sense. From where I am sitting, the answer seems to be the one that many people including myself have been saying for years: no.
Anyways, coming up soon: a review of the notorious Sam Fuller film White Dog and Being There.