Just a bit over a week ago, a little film popped onto my radar: Paranormal Activity. The ghost film, shot on a budget of just $11,000 or so, was premiering across the country in a rather clever format: midnight screenings near many of the country's largest universities. Coupled with strong early reviews, the buzz began to build. When I tried to attend last Friday, the showing was already sold out, as was the case elsewhere. This weekend, the movie opened wider, and next week, thanks to the website reaching a million hits, Paramount will release it nationwide. People, we have a bona fide phenomenon on our hands.
If you've heard that Paranormal Activity is 2009's version of The Blair Witch Project, the comparison is just. The movie is shot on a handheld camera and features only four actors. It relies on sound effects and moving doors to spook the characters and the actors, and spook it does. Paranormal Activity is one of the freakiest movies in years.
The plot is simple: a couple has moved into a house together and set up a camera in an attempt to capture the creepy things that go on at night. As it turns out, Katie (played by Katie Featherston) has been haunted by something since she was eight years old, though whatever is bothering her seems to come and go. Lately, it has returned, and thanks to her rather curious boyfriend, Micah (Micah Sloat), the two begin to experience an increasing number of disturbances.
Paranormal Activity is authentically scary. Writer/director Oren Peli knows that it's the basic, realistic bumps in the night that scare the average person, and that's exactly what he delivers. That creaking on the stairs or in the attack. The door that slams shut out of nowhere. The sense that someone else is in the room with you. These are the frightening things Peli takes advantage of, and he uses them within a well-written, well-acted film that feels a lot like it's real footage.
Sure, once some bad things start happening to the characters you'd assume they'd go to a hotel immediately, or that Micah would stop asking, “What the hell was that?” night after night, or that he would learn to keep his mouth shut. But these are nitpicks. The movie keeps you on the edge of your seat, not because it's full of a ton of thrills but because the “footage” feels like it could be taken by anyone. Peli crafts some incredibly simple but effective scenes: the powder footsteps, the woman standing still for hours on end, the dragging sequence. There are some images in this movie that will stick with you for a while; I'm getting shivers as I write this in the large, empty house where I'm spending the night.
Like The Blair Witch Project, this movie may only work on its first go around (have you watched The Blair Witch Project recently and realized how boring and non-scary it is?), but that's OK. This is a movie meant to be watched in a dark theater with a horror-loving audience. People will whimper, others will close their eyes and many will laugh at how scared they are over something so seemingly harmless.
It's rare to find a horror movie that is actually scary, but Paranormal Activity is one of those movies. It won't be nearly as effective the next time I see it, but the movie is one of the most frightening experiences in recent memory.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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