Essentially a two-person (and one entity) vehicle, Paranormal Activity presents a few days in the life of one couple: Katie (Katie Featherston) is a San Diego college student shacking up with her day-trader boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat). It turns out that Katie's been periodically haunted ever since a ghost (or is it a demon?) attached itself to her when she was 8 years old. Recently, this mysterious presence has returned, and her intrigued but skeptical boyfriend has decided to capture it with a video camera and some microphones, continuing to keep the "tape" rolling long after Katie has begged him to stop and a psychic has warned against provoking the spirit. The conceit of Paranormal Activity is that the entire movie is built from Micah's footage.
This debut feature was reportedly shot in seven days for 15 grand by writer-director Oren Peli and does a nice job using modest tricks — the bedroom door moves, hallway lights go on and off, the sheets flutter — to provoke unease, at least until a closing, special-effects-driven would-be big scare that feels too easy.
After selling out a Craig Brewer-sponsored midnight screening at Indie Memphis, Paranormal Activity got a full three-theater run starting last Friday. Despite its super-scary rep, at one late-night Paradiso screening this weekend, the crowd seemed more amused than terrified.
The comparisons to The Blair Witch Project — the last decade's low-budget, low-tech horror smash — are inevitable, but Paranormal Activity, while perhaps even more of a marketing triumph, is not as thoughtfully conceived or elegantly executed. Where Blair Witch's climactic shot buried its creepy key image in the back of the frame — where it snuck up on you and provoked true chills — Paranormal Activity's big reveal, tellingly, jumps right out at you, again provoking more surprised laughs than screams.
Though its connections to digiflick indie and YouTube-style exhibitionism are certainly contemporary, Paranormal Activity really reminds me of an even earlier era's signature scary-movie flick: the 1979 phenomenon The Amityville Horror.
Where The Amityville Horror's things-that-go-bump-in-the-night were a representation of nuclear-family financial stress in a stalled economy (and thus overdue for the horror remake seemingly every other '70s and '80s horror title has gotten... oh, wait, that's already happened, and they screwed it up), Paranormal Activity also uses its genre overlap to worry about more mundane things. It's like an Amityville Horror for comfortable, recession-proof yuppies, the demon in the midst representing the unexpected horrors of cohabitation. Depending on your perspective, you might find yourself wondering about a live-in girlfriend's secret baggage, but the true-blue message here is that guys can be total dicks.