In the tradition of Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity creates a prison without bars that lets the audience experience the walls closing in along with the victims.
Katie and Micah are just an average couple that seems to be getting a good start on life in a nice home. The documentary-style film, cobbled together from home video taped by Micah, reveals early on that the couple suspects the house may be haunted or that an entity of some sort is trying to get their attention. As funny noises slowly escalate into tangible events, facts surrounding the haunting emerge and escalate the uncertainty. Calling out the suspected entity responsible for going bump in the night probably wasn’t a good idea, either…
If you haven’t seen Paranormal Activity and truly want the full, undiluted experience, stop reading HERE. It’s nearly impossible to talk about this movie without hinting at things that diminish its effectiveness. If, on the other hand, you’re still reading, then you have either seen it already or are fairly sure knowing if it’s actually real or not will not ruin your viewing. Still here? Read on…
The first question many people will be asking is, is it better or worse than The Blair Witch Project? Yes… and no. In the inevitable comparison of low budget filmmaking, Blair Witch invented more of its own mythology (which makes it harder to debunk or dismiss.) Paranormal Activity uses well-known occult props (such as a witch board) along with questionable effects that undermine the more effective bits when we’re not sure what to really expect before something happens. At least the visiting psychic didn’t pull out a deck of tarot cards and walk in a goat.
But Paranormal Activity trumps Blair Witch in utilizing its intimate space and genre. It’s a haunted house film, plain and simple, but with practical effects rather than Liam Neeson cowering at green screened monsters. The editing keeps the story unfolding in a way that heightens the discomfort of being trapped inside to endure whatever we’re afraid is about to jump out and menace the couple on screen. The absence of any musical queues means that the audience response is organic; viewers have a moment’s preview for what’s coming for the couple onscreen just long enough to worry about it.
Shot for $11,500 (including camera, computer, editing software, actors salaries and catering), at least four endings were planned. It has been reported that the theatrical version’s ending was suggested by Steven Spielberg (and it’s pretty effective) while the original ending is out on the web (and will likely appear on the eventual DVD.) Paramount originally purchased this Indie feature to remake as a studio film, then thankfully decided to let word of mouth and a slow release into theaters do their work for them. Whether it scares you or not, Paranormal Activity is further proof that even the studios are starting to learn that effective film-making and huge returns doesn’t necessarily require huge budgets to begin with.
(a four skull recommendation out of four)