Originally published Sept. 25, 2009
Review in a Hurry: One of the decade's scariest films arrives without the hype that surrounded the soon-to-be compared with The Blair Witch Project. Thankfully, this spooky tale won't make you dizzy via shaky cam. Placing a camera on a tripod suddenly seems revolutionary.
The Bigger Picture: Though Paranormal Activity has been shown at Slamfest, Screamfest and apparently Steven Spielberg's home, Paramount is slowly releasing this buzzworthy fright flick to college towns this weekend in the hope of gaining momentum. Shot way back in 2006 in just seven days and with a crew of three (including coproducers Toni Taylor and Amir Zbeda), first-time writer-director Oren Peli used his own home as the setting for this modern take on the haunting of houses.
Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (the actors play characters named after themselves) decide to take their relationship to the next level by moving in together. It's a typical suburban starter tract house by day, but at night, things go beyond "a bump in the night."
As the film opens, Micah has decided to record everything because the chance of an actual haunting is just too tempting. (Like Blair Witch, the entire film is assembled from "found "footage.)
Katie thinks goading an evil demon might be a bad idea (smart girl) but goes along anyway (dumb call). These early goings on are handled with a light touch. Katie and Micah are likable and even kinda funny as they bicker about the merits of an Ouija board. But the humor disappears after the first night. What Psycho did for showers (and Blair Witch tents) Paranormal Activity will do for the bedroom. Everyone has to hit the sack sometime, right? But can you actually sleep after seeing this? Good luck with that.
Much of the film's running time is spent looking over the many hours (time elapsed) of the couple sleeping. And that's Peli's secret weapon: His cameras invite us to view things that we really shouldn't be seeing.
In one of the earlier scenes, Katie arises in the middle of the night in sleepwalk mode, stands over the bed and appears to be sizing up her passed out beau. The time lapse shuttles forward many hours. And she never moves. It's a particularly chilling scene and the later supernatural elements take that feeling to a new level of freak-out.
Ultimately, they're just sleeping, but there's an unshakeable sensation that something is off. That sense of dread is sustained throughout the entire running time.
Shot on practically a zero budget, the strange happenings are extremely well done. A door that slowly moves on its own might not easily impress but things build to a real sense of "how'd they do that?" trickery. We'd never spoil a film like this, but be prepared for many creepy shots that linger just a hair or two longer than you'll be comfortable with. Compared with some recent horror entries that go for big and loud, Paranormal Activity's insistence on staying on one shot (the bedroom) with no music to amp up the thrills creates an uncomfortable silence that's almost unbearable. Until it isn't silent and then it's extremely unsettling.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Put simply, this isn't a dead-teenager flick. There are no "cool kills" or any gore to speak of. Are you seriously OK with being truly scared? Still here? Then man up and leave the need for blood at home.