Rated R for language, 86 minutes
"Paranormal Activity" a genuinely frightening experience
There's been lots of buzz and hype surrounding the new film "Paranormal Activity," a low-budget horror "mockumentary" made for $15,000 by a novice, unknown filmmaker that's still awaiting wide release. Something similar happened 10 years ago with the horror film "The Blair Witch Project," or as I call it, "The Blah Witch Project" for its inability to produce any real scares, but "Paranormal Activity" is a legitimately scary, often terrifying film that much like "Blair Witch," plays on our fears of the unknown.
"Paranormal Activity" centers on a young San Diego couple, Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat), who are haunted by a demonic presence. Katie has been haunted by a demonic presence for years, and wherever she tends to be, strange things start to happen. Micah becomes fascinated and begins documenting everything on camera, especially at night, when really weird things take place. Hoping to help rid Katie of the presence for good so they can go on with their lives, Micah's "project" of documenting all the creaks, noises, shadows and other unusual activities may do more harm than good.
"Paranormal Activity" is a genuinely creepy, eerie film that produces some decent chills and thrills without elaborate special effects, makeup or loads of gore that mainstream horror films rely on far too much. Even more remarkable is the fact that the film was made - both directed and written - by Oren Peli, a filmmaker with no formal film training, for $15,000 and a hand-held camera over a 7-day shoot. That by itself may be a draw, but "Paranormal Activity" easily evokes the original "The Haunting" fused with elements of "The Exorcist" and "The Amityville Horror" and far, far more effective at building suspense than most contemporary horror films.
Peli plays on our fears of the unknown, of those things that go bump in the night, and remain largely unseen. Unlike "Blair Witch," we see a little more of the entity here, but not much, over each nighttime episode. With that in mind, "Paranormal's" creepiest and most unsettling scenes are those that, unsurprisingly, happen at evening. The lights go out and all you see are the night vision-esque lights of the camera, which cast a terrifying glow on the sequence of events and makes all those noises and shadows all the more frightening. "Paranormal" isn't without its flaws: there's too much chatter and talk, particularly in the first 20 minutes, but it eventually and effectively builds to a chilling, somewhat startling climax that you may or may not see coming.
Not to spoil things too much, but "Paranormal Activity" is a work of fiction, though it's an impressive feature film debut by Peli (who's already garnered the attention of Spielberg) and well-acted by the two unknown actors, who convey a real sense of fright and interplay well with each other. But the biggest question about the film isn't the subject matter but all that buzz surrounding it. Does it live up to all the hype? The answer is both yes and no. Much like anything that is overhyped, "Paranormal Activity" doesn't live up to the internet claims of the scariest film ever, but a thoroughly disturbing and unconventional horror film that gets under your skin, the answer is a resounding yes.
"Paranormal Activity" is very effective at leaving you with a disturbed, uneasy feeling that stays you with long after you leave the theater. Is this particular story real? Maybe not, but the fact that it could be leaves you with a squeamish feeling in the pit of your stomach. "Paranormal Activity" comes recommended, though to get the full value out of it, you must stay all the way until the very end. A perfect Halloween feature, hopefully it'll have a wide release by then.