Paranormal Activity (15)

Simplicity is a highly effective tool in horror films

Ever since Robert Rodriguez signed up for pharmaceutical trials to finance his 1992 "burrito western", El Mariachi, the romance of the no-budget success story has been catnip to the Hollywood PR machine. Not that such movies could ever usurp the multimillion-dollar industry model. Indeed, one striking thing about the supposedly game-changing phenomenon of The Blair Witch Project was that it changed the game not a jot. No revolution followed that 1999 camcorder horror hit. Guerrilla auteurs never did decapitate studio heads with clapperboards, or break down establishment doors using Steven Seagal as a battering ram.

So the new bare-bones ghost story Paranormal Activity has about it the air of a Blair Witch tenth-anniversary celebration, a harking back rather than a lunging forward. The film was shot for roughly $15,000 (a sum dwarfed by its marketing budget) and has grossed nearly $100m in the US. It was filmed in one location (the house of its writer-director-producer-editor, Oren Peli) with a single camera. As well as making Blair Witch seem like a Cecil B DeMille spectacular, it is the more penetrating picture, largely because the characters don't go looking for horror in the woods - it comes looking for them at home.

And we, in turn, take the horror back with us to our own homes. Because the most unsettling scenes involve nothing more than a camera photographing a sleeping couple, the film is built to chime with our own nocturnal routines. Like A Nightmare on Elm Street, it preys on the fear of what happens when our eyes are closed. And, in common with The Blair Witch Project, it exploits the horror genre's compatibility with micro-budget cinema, as well as the "snuff movie" connotations that arise when the two overlap.

Simplicity is the key to the film's effectiveness. Katie (Katie Featherston) and her boy­friend, Micah (Micah Sloat), suspect their new home is haunted, so Micah sets up a camera to document all the things that go bump, screech and whoosh in the night. It is this video diary that we are watching. Unlike in most films, it's no problem if the cinematographer is glimpsed in the mirror, or if the subject's head is abbre­viated by the frame; it's the immediacy of the camerawork, the impossibility of pulling back from the action during moments of panic, that make the picture so claustrophobic.

But Paranormal Activity is not just a horror film - it is also a lesson in how to shoot one. All the fundamental commandments are adhered to, from "Keep the monster off-screen" and "Silence is scarier than music" to "Never under­estimate the power of a mysteriously slamming door". As well as being charmingly rudimentary, the scant special effects are mostly executed "in camera". The pretence that we are watching material cut together some time after the fact allows an unseen editor to fast-forward through footage of Katie sleepwalking. This lends her movements a jerky, demonic tremor rarely seen outside TV appearances by Michael Gove.

Hints about the part that Katie and Micah might play in their own haunting come through in tiny drops. Scenes from a Marriage it ain't, but there are fissures in the relationship long before the glass in a framed photo of the couple shatters. It's a close call whether Micah is more in love with Katie or the stacks of gadgets he has amassed, and some may see the film as a reminder that no amount of hi-tech security alarms can protect us from our own self-sabotage campaigns. Before the end of the film, she has confessed to a secret history of being haunted, and he is berating her for bringing malevolent spirits into the house. An exorcist is needed here, but perhaps a relationship counsellor wouldn't go amiss, either.

Showing Paranormal Activity to young horror fans would be like expecting prog-rock enthusiasts to be wowed by skiffle. But after half a decade of torture-porn, it represents something of a palate-cleanser. And your pleasure will doubtless be intensified if you follow my experience of watching the film and a) sit in the front row, b) see it at night in the company of a large and susceptible audience, c) walk home alone afterwards and d) happen to be a big girl's blouse.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Left Hanging