An invisible man sleeping in your bed, who you gonna call? Well, in Paranormal Activity, a young couple forgoes ghostbusting in order to catch some footage of an unwanted spirit that has been interrupting their sleep. As frightening as that seems, the Hollywood executives are the ones that should be the most frightened, because not only is this $15,000 film making more money than many mainstream movies, but also it’s extremely entertaining and by far one of the scariest movies in many years.
People will undoubtedly compare this movie with 1997’s The Blair Witch Project, which told its story via the use of a hand-held camera and ad-libbed scenes that the writers had only loosely sketched beforehand. Even though critics lauded it, Blair Witch had problems in its plot and execution, and was lackluster at times. Back in 2007, first time director Oren Peli made a movie that does everything right where Blair Witch went wrong. The film, Paranormal Activity, floated around the production companies in limbo between post-production and a movie house, before it finally reached wide release on October 16, 2009.
The story tells of fledgling couple Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston), who have recently begun living together and are "engaged to be engaged," as Micah puts it. He’s a wealthy-enough day-trader with a techie sentiment and a huge TV while she’s an English student who hopes to teach. Inside their new San Diego home they have been hearing strange things during the night and Micah wants to discover what’s making the peculiar noise. As the film begins, he has just purchased a hefty camera to record as much of his and Katie’s daily life as possible, including their sleep.
The couple invites a ghost “expert” to their home who explains that they do not have a ghost, i.e. a dead human being with unfinished business, but rather they have a demon(!), an annoying entity who obsesses over people like an ex-boyfriend. Katie reveals that this demon has been haunting her off and on her whole life. Micah, frustrated by his inability to protect his girlfriend, takes it upon himself to “solve” the problem with things such as baby-powder, Ouija boards, and verbal taunting.
The movie rocks you back and forth between Micah and Katie’s day-to-day activities, and footage of them sleeping, when most of the paranormal events occur. While they sleep, the audience at first hears noises, footsteps, whispers, and sees the door move. As the movie progresses, however, the disturbances increase in severity until the intensity has risen to a fever pitch that is almost unbearable.
Paranomal Activity moves quickly. Like many movies before it (although not nearly enough), it doesn’t rely on blood and gore to scare you; rather, it relies on the unknown, the unseen, that creature under your bead, the boogeyman in the closet. Many filmgoers might find this lack of immediate gratification frustrating (which comes from an overexposure to CGI and creature design), but make no mistake, Paranormal Activity scares and doesn’t use cheap thrills to do so. What’s more, the special effects in this movie are so subtle, muted, and convincing that they feel like magic tricks; after the movie you’ll be wondering how in the hell they did it.
Micah is funny and extremely likeable. He brings to life even mundane statements, and can go from goofy to concerned so seamlessly that you will be laughing even during some of the scariest scenes. Katie is slightly overweight with a plain face—not your typical leading lady—and is onscreen for virtually the entire film. However, she brings a sexiness and urgency that delightfully complements Micah’s personality. Furthermore, when she has to, she’s absolutely terrifying, and is at the heart of many of the film’s scariest scenes.
Of course, the movie has some problems. There are a few ideas that are introduced and then explored either too little or nil. The plot is simple and offers few explanations for why any of these events are happening in the first place. Micah and Katie’s relationship, while realistic, doesn’t go to the depths that it could. But these small issues do nothing to hinder the films effectiveness and can even work for the film’s mysterious quality.
So take a friend and a change of pants and go out to see Paranormal Activity. You don’t want to wait to rent this one. Watching a movie like this alone in your house is not a good idea; you’ll have trouble enough going to sleep after you see it in the theater. I didn’t, but then again, I ain’t afraid of no ghost.
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Michael Bayouth
Director: Oren Peli
Runtime: 86 Minutes
Distributor: Paramount Pictures, Dreamworks Pictures
Rating: R for Language