By:Rob Vaux
Review Date: Sunday, October 11, 2009


I never bought the hype surrounding The Blair Witch Project, a vaguely interesting genre exercise undone by praise far in excess of its modest charms. It worked mainly by turning budgetary limitations into a genuine stylistic asset… and unfortunately convinced a thousand would-be auteurs that the only thing they needed to make a good horror movie was a hand-held camera and a cast with a knack for improv.
Now comes Paranormal Activity, which follows the Blair Witch playbook step for step (right down to the hype that can't quite be believed). Unlike Blair Witch, however, this film backs its rep up with genuinely good filmmaking, transforming another point-and-shoot horror quickie into a peerless exercise in stimulus response. Writer-director Oren Peli uses a bag of very old tricks--creaky floorboards, shapes on the wall and the ubiquitous bumps in the night--to generate his chills. But he deploys them with such mastery that you're scarcely aware of how effective they are until they've grabbed you by the throat.
He also borrows a few pages from Hitchcock by transforming mundane surroundings into the stuff of nightmare. In this case, it's a pleasant San Diego home occupied by a young couple on their way up. Micah (Micah Sloat) works as a day trader and thinks he has the world by the balls. Katie (Katie Featherston) is happy to enjoy the fruits of his wealth while studying to be a schoolteacher. Sadly, she also has a secret: her past has been periodically troubled by supernatural visitations. It's nothing life-threatening--a few shades and moans here and there--but lately the incidents have been getting worse, prompting Micah to buy a camera in hopes of capturing something on film. The act triggers more serious manifestations, as well as increasing evidence that this spectral visitor has nothing good in store for the young couple.
Peli makes his bread and butter by hitting us where we sleep… literally. Micah points the camera at their bed every night, recording the entity's ever-more horrific activities around their sleeping forms. The psychological impact can't be underestimated, reminding us how vulnerable we are when we slumber and striking at the very place we instinctively head towards for safety. It doesn't take much. The bedroom door swings ominously open and closed, footsteps can be heard on the stairway outside, and the yawning shadows enshrouding the bedroom conjure more terrors than any make-up studio could ever hope for. Paranormal Activity remains largely in the realm of plausibility, taking the sort of incidents found in Ghost Hunters and pushing them just a step or two closer to the concrete.
It also adds a pair of victims who immediately sell us on their veracity. They behave very normally, with off-the-cuff dialogue stressing natural rhythms and an easy chemistry between the actors that quickly conveys their characters' history. Micah is frankly a dick, with the answers to everything even when he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. He treats the intruding spirit like a cool new toy--even buying an Ouija board after Katie tells him not to--and his frat-boy swagger seems to actively invite the trouble that befalls them. Katie acknowledges the danger they're in much more readily, even calling in a psychic (Mark Frederichs) to offer advice. Their natural rhythms allow the film to present itself as fact, with the credits replaced by a special thank-you to the couple's "families" for use of the footage. That blurry line makes the terror all the more difficult to deny.
And Paranormal Activity has little on its mind beyond sending a goose or three across our graves. It holds no thematic complexity and its straightforward scenario requires no bells and whistles to carry it through. It simply knows how to get inside our skin, utilizing pure craftsmanship to achieve what a thousand more expensive productions couldn't hope for. I'm very hard to scare and it got more than a few serious jumps out of me (including a finale that should have you sleeping with the lights on for a month). The hype surrounding it is insufferable, of course, and may provoke a backlash similar to that of Blair Witch. It has the chops to stand against the vagaries of public opinion, however; divorced from its pop culture context, it still scares the crap out of you and while multiple viewings may diminish those returns, it has officially announced itself as the spookhouse to beat this fall. Take a look before you're sick to death of hearing about it; for once, the indiscriminate praise is really onto something.

Mania Grade: A
Movie: Paranormal Activity
Starring: Micah Sloat, Katie Featherston, and Mark Frederichs
Written By: Oren Peli
Directed By: Oren Peli
Distributor: Paramount Pictures