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Is Paranormal Activity the Next Blair Witch?

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You might have thought that the horror-captured-on-videotape genre was all played out, after The Blair Witch Project gave way to the diminishing returns of Cloverfield, Rec, Diary of the Dead, Quarantine, and other thrillers purportedly pieced together from amateur footage shot by the victims of monsters, zombies, and wraiths. You thought wrong, oh, ye of little faith in the enduring power of mini-DV. (And for that, you'll have to go stand in the corner, just like that guy at the end of Blair Witch.)

Next up on the docket is Paranormal Activity, an $11,000 shocker that Paramount hopes will develop into a Blair Witch II, in a way that the real Blair Witch II obviously never did. Based on a scream-filled screening I caught at the Telluride Film Festival, the studio's faith may not be misplaced--though it's anyone's guess whether lightning, or pesky demons, can strike the same public fancy twice.

The story behind the movie's haphazard path to multiplexes is almost as mysterious as the on-screen haunting. The micro-budgeted cheapie unspooled for a minimal amount of people at the Slamdance Festival in January 2008, then was bought by DreamWorks and promptly stashed in the closet, its cult reputation as (purportedly) one of the scariest movies ever made growing ever stronger as it gathered dust. Horror fans eager to see whether it lived up to its legend were ticked off upon hearing that the studio planned to squelch the original in order to get a remake underway. If that was ever the plan, someone thought better of spending millions of dollars trying to recreate something that won't even work if it doesn't look as cheap as possible.

Now Paramount, which inherited the project in its split with DreamWorks, is finally prepared to give it a push. That launch began with its re-premiere at Telluride--a nice stamp of approval for the movie, since that high-class festival rarely goes slumming with pure genre fare. The print was approved too late to get it into one of the festival's regular slots, so the film unspooled as a sneak preview in the Telluride town park, where an audience of shriekers sat on blankets in a steady drizzle that only occasionally gave way to a full moon over the mountains. Seeing a film like this with an appreciatively vocal audience is a kick, but its spookiest venue will be in the quietude of home theaters, without any walk to the parking lot afterward to buffer the tension before you settle in for a nice nightmare.

There are two types of supernatural horror film: the pure thrill ride, where the funhouse elements are unaffected by any concert for Fortean "reality" as anyone knows it--a la Poltergiest... and, less common, the movies that really do mean to strike a chord for anyone who believes in this kind of stuff, like The Exorcist and The Entity. Paranormal Activity belongs squarely to the latter subgenre, with plenty of verisimilitude for anyone who's a "fan" of real-life demonizations. Writer-director Oren Peli has clearly read up on his possession cases, and also clearly watched a lot of Ghost Hunters or Paranormal State-type reality shows, in order to figure out exactly what things that go bump in the night might sound and feel like. Hauntings homework has been done.

The vast majority of the picture portrays just the two principal characters, a none-too-brainy boyfriend and girlfriend who cohabitate in a modern house in a crowded San Diego suburb. The only two other actors briefly portray a sympathetic friend and a medium who's hired to stop by a couple of times before he becomes too freaked out by the sinister vibes to stick around. There is no studio logo, at least on the print we saw--just an opening scroll of thanks to the families of the two victims portrayed, setting up, as is typical in the genre, the idea that they presumably don't survive.

The doofus boyfriend has bought an expensive camera, equipped with night vision, to document the weirdness in their new home, we're informed straight off. Since the proceedings take place over a period of weeks, you may wonder why they don't just call a taxi, run out into the street, and leave the bank to foreclose at any given tortured moment. The answer is that the young woman believes the demonic force has already followed her from home to home since childhood, and would likely follow her again. The better answer is that her b.f. is an idiot who's determined to prompt the sinister force into doing something cool on camera -- not unlike the "pros" on Ghost Hunters and Paranormal State who constantly try to provoke Beelzebub's minions into giving them a poke, a chair push, or a deep-throated gurgle.

Did we mention that dude plays with a Ouija board? Dude plays with a Ouija board. Hello, Captain Howdy!

The filmmaker does a hell of a job of doing a lot with a little, which is to say, you'd be surprised at how much suspense can be drawn out of a static black-and-white shot of two people asleep under a sheet, with a time code in the corner. It's really not until the very last long shot of the picture that Peli, a little too eager to reward the audience's patience and deliver the goods, goes over the top into a more cornporn kind of horror. The literalism of that finale spoiled some of the theretofore subtle fun, for me, though I don't doubt it'll be a satisfying payoff for audiences who want to be goosed in grander fashion.

Looking at Paramount's initial plans for the film, it's not clear whether they really want to test the waters before doing a big rollout or really do have a carefully planned rollout in mind. Following another high-profile "premiere" at Harry Knowles' festival in Austin, the movie will have midnight showings Sept. 24 in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Seattle, and several other major cities. The film's website will also have a mechanism for you to check in and beg to have the movie brought to your city, which I guess you'd call viral-by-encouragement.

The drawback to drawing things out over this extended a period of buildup is that the film might not seem quite as terrifying as its legend. At Telluride, we were told we'd be too shaken to walk back to our hotel rooms by ourselves; suffice it to say that I was able to make it home alone. At the same time, though, I felt Paranormal Activity giving me a few nice horror wedgies that, inured to the genre as I am, I haven't experienced in a while. Moviegoers who've spent fewer man-hours than I have in fright-film mode may be even more happily horrified and start the word o' mouth Paramount needs to turn this into a phenomenon.

More than anything, in this era of hyper-editing and hyper-budgeting, I'm just delighted to find a film that can transfix viewers even as untold minutes of its running time are devoted to watching grainy footage of a couple asleep in bed. Andy Warhol would be proud, and so would William Castle.