Paranormal Activity will scare the shit out of you.

If you’re sitting at home watching it in the dark on your couch. At
least, that’s what I assume; in theaters it’s a tense, enjoyable horror
movie that loses the thread right in the final moments, but it doesn’t
have the kind of impact you might hope. But since the film is about
feeling incredibly not at home while at home, I bet that watching it
while at home will give you the willies that the advertising implies
you’ll be getting in theaters.

It’s rare that I would recommend “wait for DVD” as a positive thing, but it’s the case with Paranormal Activity.
A little film – it has just four actors, and one of those actors has
about two lines – it’s swamped by big screen expectations. And because
the movie is not interested in overwhelming you, it’s easy to be
underwhelmed in a big theatrical setting.

What’s really great about Paranormal Activity is the way
that it uses the oldest haunted house tricks in the book – strange
noises, lights that turn on and off, doors that close of their own
accord – and makes them work. There are some very nice scares in the
film that use nothing more than a bump on the soundtrack. It’s just
old-fashioned scaremongering that proves you don’t need fancy effects
or to spend lots of money to get an audience. All you need is timing
and atmosphere.

The film’s main conceit is that a young couple has been experiencing
weird shit in their house, so the guy buys a high end video camera to
document the goings on. But it turns out to be much more than just a
haunted house – the activity has been centered around his girlfriend
since she was 8, and the entity is entirely too interested in her. And
seems to be entirely too jealous of the boyfriend. Over the course of
20 days and nights they experience a steadily escalating series of
weird, scary and threatening events, many of which are shot from a
stationary camera using night vision, giving the whole thing a verite,
sort of Ghost Hunters look.

The small scope keeps things nice and claustrophobic, but it also
limits the story. There’s probably about 15 minutes of the runtime
devoted to the girl and the guy arguing about the camera, which is 13
minutes too many. But writer/director Oren Peli needs to fill in the
gaps between scares, and he needs to keep the personal tension up, so
we get a lot of that kind of stuff. The film makes the guy, Micah,
almost completely unlikable. A douchey day trader, Micah goes from
being skeptical about his girlfriend’s demon problem to being
moronically aggressive, going out of his way to rile up the entity
despite multiple scenes where he’s begged not to do so. Katie, the
girlfriend, is a very sympathetic character, and I wish that Micah had
been allowed to be as sympathetic. I understand where his character is
coming from – he feels utterly threatened on a deep level by this
entity over whom he has no power, but he could still have that struggle
without being a dick a lot of the time.

As the film ups the ante towards the end I worried that it wouldn’t be
able to stick the landing, and it totally doesn’t. The ending of the
film is the equivalent of one of those pictures a friend sends you in
your email, saying you should look closely to see what’s wrong with the
image. You, of course, didn’t notice that it was a .gif and when a
scary face suddenly appears you jump back in your chair. But it’s a
cheap, shoddy, Photoshopped scare, and that’s what Paranormal Activity gives
us at the end. Apparently the ending has been a problem for the film
for a while, and the finale you’ll see in theaters is quite different
from what played at Slamdance two years ago.

I ended up respecting the film more than really liking it; it’s well
made in a very small film sort of way, and it’s impressive that
Paramount is giving this a theatrical release. They obviously see Blair Witch in their futures, and while this movie shares the ‘We swear this is real footage’ gimmick (helped in Paranormal Activity‘s
case by the fact that neither of the leads seems to have found much
career success since making the film in 2006) with that seminal movie,
it’s a much better film in nearly every way. For one thing, shit
actually happens in the film – Peli’s got a nice sense of pacing, and
he spreads out the scares with grace and finesse. And while Paranormal Activity has the characters holding the camera, none of them seem to be as Parkinsonian as Blair Witch‘s crew.

Paranormal Activity is a small film that can’t quite bear
the weight of the praise heaped upon it. While the film is well worth
seeing, you might consider skipping it in theaters and renting the DVD
on a night when it’s dark, quiet and a little scary in your own house.

7 out of 10