Paranormal Activity: Limited Edition [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Second Sight
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (20th September 2021).
The Film

Festival Trophy (Best Actress): Katie Featherston (winner) and Honorable Mention: Oren Peli (winner) - Screamfest, 2007

Day trader Micah (Micah Sloat) and his girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston) are experience strange occurrences in their suburban San Diego home ranging from strange shadows and lights turning on and off to footsteps and loud bangs that disturb their sleep. While Micah is excited by the novelty of the paranormal and the possibility of capturing proof of its existence on film, Katie wants to ignore the hauntings which she claims to have tormented her since she was seven years old and her family's home mysteriously burned down. When Katie finally agrees that something has to be done about the nocturnal disturbances, she wants to consult a demonologist; Micah, on the other hand, orders a swanky camcorder and sets it up in their bedroom with a view of the hallway where the occurrences seem to most commonly occur. Katie grows increasingly fearful of the increasing frequency of strange shadows, murmuring voices, feather-light touches, loud bangs in the night, and belongings moved around, believing Micah's incessant filming and investigative techniques to be a provocation that is making things worse.

While it is still being argued whether or not The Blair Witch Project was really the first "found footage" horror film or whether Cannibal Holocaust was a precedent, or whether the makers of the former film might have seen the contemporary The Last Broadcast it was reallyOren Peli 's Paranormal Activity among the many post-Blair Witch imitators that kicked off the "found footage" boom of digital video filmmakers be they regional amateurs or industry types looking for a quick break who would exploit the no-budget, script-less template with the knowledge that whatever they turned out would at least be picked up by product-hungry streaming services if not get festival play and possibly physical media releases (more so due to Redbox-type rent and rent-to-own services than necessarily the collector's market). The film thus far the only one in the genre besides the aforementioned The Blair Witch Project to attract a major distributor and widespread theatrical release not only establishes the template of the renewed (not necessarily "refreshed") "found footage" proliferation, it also seemed to have influenced a new style of paranormal reality show exemplified by the Ghost Adventures-style of douche-bros attempting to antagonize a reaction that will register on digital recording equipment (as well as "fictionalized" takes like Grave Encounters in which the actual filmmakers do not seem to realize they are no better than the people they are skewering in the film).

What works in Peli's film is a contrast between the natural chemistry between Sloat and Featherston and the plot's archetypal male-female dynamic in which a protective role is blurred with a possessive one Micah's remarks about the threat to his girlfriend are conflated with the offense of a third party invading his home the female's passivity is only frustrating in relation to something that vexes the male; indeed, in the latter case, one is hard-pressed to think of an alternative to her trying to ignore the hauntings early on before they escalate if the alternative of trying to exorcise it in any form would just make things worse. Viewers can relate just as much with Micah's response to a problem by going "gear crazy" (of course, he drops half of his daily income as a day trader on the camera and editing equipment) as to Katie's frustration with Micah's desire to film everything (the explosive "shut off the camera" outburst having also become a staple of the genre). Whether intentional or not, first-time filmmaker Peli gets a lot of mileage out of audience expectations from prescient throwaway lines of dialogue or Micah suggesting using a Ouija board to the structure of the film with the timestamps marking the transitions to night rather than the day scenes (akin to fan reaction to the famous phrase "later that night" on the Discovery Channel's silly but addictive paranormal accounts show A Haunting).

What does not work, on the other hand, are the improvements advised by industry screenings including some rumored input from Steven Spielberg in which a Ouija board left alone after a question is asked must burst into flames to wow the audience rather than just move the planchette a fraction to induce chills, or the CGI-augmented ending which is less effective than the original ending (the theatrical version could have left the film open for a sequel without the additional toward-the-camera lunges). The film spawned six sequels of increasingly inferior quality the prequel Paranormal Activity 3 was a brief bright spot but it was nevertheless dogged by the corner into which the second film painted the rest of the series with an explanation that is far less effective than the notion of a demon or poltergeist randomly latching onto an individual for years at a time along with an official Japanese offshoot Paranormal Activity: Tokyo Night. If the Blair Witch reboot is any indicator, one should not hold out high hopes for the inevitable Paranormal Activity reboot. On the other hand, the first film still retain some of its subtler frissons even if the formula has been repeated ad naseum by the sequels and various imitators. Just as The Blair Witch Project was dogged by the specter of The Last Broadcast, Paranormal Activity also overshadowed a little-seen (and possibly suppressed) contemporary in Amanda Gusack's 2005 film In Memorium in which a young man dying from cancer outfits his rented house with video cameras to document his final months only to be pick up signs of a supernatural presence that may even be malevolently contributing to his failing health.

Video

For a film shot on the 1080i Sony HDR-FX1 camcorder which produces a 1440x1080i resolution image that has gone through both digital manipulation in both desktop editing software (Sony Vegas) and subsequent industry-grade treatment for 35mm blow-up and D-Cinema projection, Second Sight's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen encode is no different from any of the other Blu-ray releases before including Icon's 2010 edition but they have treated it to a high bitrate encode that highlights the film's deliberate usage of its relatively low-fi deficits to its advantage, from noise in the darkest parts of the image, some smearing, banding in fine patterns, and some blown-out highlights thanks to the mostly-naturalistic lighting and camerawork meant to look amateurish and reactive to sudden shocks. The disc presents the film's theatrical version with a running time of 86:45. The not so fine-tuned festival cut which included a different ending ran ten minutes longer while an unrated cut actually ran shorter at 85:03, including a moment of additional graphic violence during yet another alternate ending. While the Icon disc and Paramount's American edition included the option of watching theatrical or unrated versions, Second Sight only includes the theatrical version (although the two alternate endings are included in the extras).

Audio

Despite studio tinkering, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix is not state-of-the-art but reflective of the limitations of the original shoot and desktop post-production. While all of the dialogue is intelligible, the ambience of the location recording which included some offscreen noises produced and recorded on the set to cue the actors is more effective in that the less-refined mix causes the ear to search out the silences and hiss in the same way the eye searches the frame in "found footage" films. Presumably some of the mix's bass might have been augmented in remixing at the same time as the Spielberg-advised additions and reshoots. A DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo mix is also provided along with optional English HoH subtitles.

Extras

Ported over from the Icon edition is an audio commentary by writer/director Oren Peli from 2010 in which he notes the presence of the Icon logo while also revealing his surprise that Paramount was okay with leaving their own logo off of the feature in their territories to move right into the film and preserve the illusion of watching reality. He then discusses the origins of the project in his own move into his first home with his girlfriend and how unsettling the different types of sounds heard in a house were after a lifetime of apartment living. He then discusses the shaping of the idea and how research and pre-production included watching several "found footage" movies as well as other horror movies and remodeling his house to suit the story. He also discusses teaching himself various film roles, the iconic bedroom shot, auditioning and directing the actors, discovering that he did not have to surprise them and could collaborate with them (even to the extent of leaving and letting the two film scenes on their own), and learning to edit and create digital effects (mostly painting crew out) on Sony Vegas. Most interesting is his discussion of trying to shop the film to distributors and film festivals and getting rejected, choosing between Sundance's premiere status requirement and the sure thing that was Screamfest, meeting Jason Blum (later of Blumhouse), Dreamworks becoming involved and Spielberg's alleged response to the film, the precarious position of the film when Dreamworks and Paramount parted ways, and the marketing campaign.

New to the disc is an audio commentary by Scarred for Life and Gayly Dreadful podcasters Mary Beth McAndrews and Terry Mesnard which is everything a viewer with an analytical mind could want with discussions of post-9/11 gender roles, the influence of true crime documentaries, the infiltration of the domestic by technology, the dual violations of the female by the paranormal and the camera (by way of Micah immediately suggesting filming them having sex), visual motifs, the "found footage" genre and the viewer as super-active participant scanning the frame, and subverting various tropes associated with horror films and the suburban American dream.

In terms of the newer extras, "Breaking Normal" (39:07) finds writer/director Peli rehashing a lot of the same anecdotes from the commentary, sometimes verbatim, but telling a much more linear version without having to accompany the visuals. Like some of the other new interviews, his talk is interspersed with behind the scenes footage and audition tapes of Sloat and Featherston. In "The Marked One" (29:47), actress Featherston recalls the overnight change the film brought to her career after three years of paying her dues in Los Angeles, noting how Peli's focus was assuring when taking on a project with no script, building chemistry with Sloat, and staying in Peli's house during the main shoot, as well as some of the reshoots and the slow progress as Peli tried to get the film out to distributors and festivals. In "The Man with the Camera" (24:58), Sloat recalls completing his degree and then deciding to try acting and music, his frustration with audtions and how refreshing Peli's improvised project appeared, working with Featherston, staying with Peli for the shoot, and his own reactions to the story and the finished film.

In "The Possessed" (15:59), actress Ashley Palmer recalls auditioning for the role of Katie and Peli keeping her abreast of the project throughout the shoot before offering her a part a year later when he decided to fill out the backstory with video and stills about a previous haunting and possession. She recalls her trepidation about using her own apartment to film because she thought he was bringing in an entire crew, but then being relieved they ended up shooting in Peli's home due to the unconventional materials the make-up artist used for her possession make-up. The disc also includes the alternative ending (4:54) seen on the unrated cut of the film as well as the festival cut ending (7:03) while a deleted scene (2:53) of Micah and Katie reacting to video of the previous possession was thankfully left out since the acting is a bit more theatrical. The disc also includes a theatrical trailer and two TV spots (1:51).

Packaging

The disc is packaged in a rigid slipcase with new artwork by James Neal, along with a softcover book with new essays by Sarah Appleton, Anton Bitel, Shellie McMurdo, and Pete Turner not supplied for review as well as six collectors' art cards.

Overall

Fourteen years after the filmmaking phenomenon that was Paranormal Activity, which not only rebooted the "found footage" genre after The Blair Witch Project but gave non-professional filmmakers with more ambition than resources a means of finding a way "in" to filmmaking, this special edition is as good an assessment as to why it had the impact it did and why its sequels and most slavish imitators failed to make lightning strike twice.

 


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