It is a rare thing to walk into a movie by choice expecting to dislike if not outright hate it. Yet off I went to a Saturday evening showing of Paranormal Activity, praying that it would not be a replay of The Blair Witch Project ten years prior. The ingredients were frighteningly similar. We had a no-budget horror film shot on a home video camera made to look like a documentary of real events, a reliance on implied terror and just off-screen menace that theoretically excused a lack of any actual scary imagery, and a carefully plotted advertising campaign that played up word of mouth from underground screenings and made the movie seem like an event that you had to experience before your friends did. But, the results are different this time. Maybe it's because I wasn't caught by surprise this time around, and thus I knew what I was getting into. Or maybe Paranormal Activity is just a better film than The Blair Witch Project. But while Paranormal Activity certainly is not the scariest film ever made, it also did not leave me with sharp feelings of anger, betrayal, and the distinct impression that the moviegoing populace had just been conned.
A token amount of plot - A young couple have recently moved in together into a new home, but they've been plagued by various loud noises and odd occurrences while they sleep. Determined to solve this mystery, the couple sets up a video camera in the corner of their bedroom to try to record some evidence of the mysterious goings-on. Needless to say, if they didn't happen to record some most disturbing stuff, then there would be no movie. But as the occurrences increase in quantity and quality, the young couple realize that this may be more complicated than a simple house-haunting. That's all you get and that's all you need. Unfortunately, the majority of the movie fails to truly terrify not because of its minuscule budget, but because of the film's strict adherence to its own rules. Horror films work best when you realize that you cannot trust the filmmakers. But writer/director Oren Peli crafts a low-tech chiller that almost plays too fair with the audience.
I hesitate to say more, because I don't want to spoil by implication (consider that a spoiler warning). But the film quickly sets a very specific pattern as to when the scares might come and when you can catch your breath. The very best scares (think the big jump-scenes in Jaws or Deep Blue Sea) usually come during 'time-out moments', when the plot and character seems to be developing in between horror set-pieces. But the world in Paranormal Activity is very strictly divided into 'potentially scary' and 'plot and character' scenes. Once that line is set in stone by the first third of the picture, we know that we will never, ever be caught off-guard. Furthermore (and this was a big issue with Blair Witch as well as the theatrical cut of One Hour Photo), the opening exposition basically establishes the fate of our major characters, so once again we understand that everything that happens until the end of the picture will be a false alarm of some kind.
Of course, one might find terror through empathizing with our young couple, but they aren't the least bit developed. While Katie Featherstein makes an empathetic victim as the primary target of terror, the male half (Micah Sloat) is written as annoying, unsympathetic, and occasionally counterproductive. Even more so than in The Blair Witch Project, the constant recording of every important moment of the narrative strains believability. So despite the ambitious ideas and somewhat successful execution, we are left with several false scares that all occur exactly on cue with very little to entertain us during the downtime (a wannabe ghost-buster provides rare comic relief).
Having said all of that, it's a more honest film that The Blair Witch Project. It won't make you dizzy, it's always in focus and easily audible at all times. The movie never really cheats and establishes a genuine filmmaking talent with just $11,000. If you must experience the would-be phenomenon, make sure to go to a packed theater, so you can at least enjoy the screams and shouts from more easily traumatized moviegoers. It's not a terribly scary film, but it is occasionally clever and it won't leave you feeling angry.