Low-Budget Surprise "Paranormal Activity" Lives Up to Its Hype

By this point the hype—Paranormal Activity, the scariest movie ever, didn't sleep for three nights, and so on—has probably either hooked you or pushed you away. Much has been made of the movie's aggressively coy marketing strategy—a Blair Witch blitz for an information age in full swing—but the most compelling aspect of it is Paramount's success in manipulating word-of-mouth publicity, primarily via a website where people could vote to bring it to their town, and then eventually "earn" the film a wide release. Paranormal Activity is a subjectively styled entry in a subjectively enjoyable genre, and here is a studio somehow manipulating subjective response.

So, subjectively: Paranormal Activity scared the shit out of me.

This is not a horror film at all like what we've recently seen, though the spirit of The Blair Witch Project hangs over more than just the promotional campaign. Most obviously there is the found-footage aesthetic and the minimal cast and crew, both tied closely to the films' unreasonably modest productions. More than that there are themes of isolation and helplessness—more specifically a lack of control in Paranormal Activity's case—that lend themselves very easily and very well to horror storytelling.

The execution, though, is quite different. The events of Paranormal Activity center around a young couple (unreasonably talented newcomers Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston, using their real first names) struggling with a series of strange noises and happenings around their home. Micah is intrigued, but cocky and skeptical; he initially uses the problem as an excuse to buy a really nice video camera. Katie, who has experienced similar disturbances throughout her life, takes it quite seriously, and is a little perturbed from the moment Micah begins documenting their days and nights in a possibly haunted house.

The scary story told through the lens of a single video camera is nothing new. Affordable digital video continues to democratize the filmmaking process, and horror's malleability has made it equally welcoming to both low-budget projects (Blair Witch, Diary of the Dead) and well-funded productions like Cloverfield or Paco Plaza and Jaume Balaguero's superb Rec films, which find the device useful for more than just sidestepping technical limitations. What distinguishes Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity from these films is that the first-person gimmick is not a shortcut to cheap visceral thrills, nor does it rely on verisimilitude to do any heavy lifting; to the contrary, its visual style—though shaky, weak stomachs be warned—is relatively matter-of-fact. It gets away with this because the acting and scenario are so confident, but more importantly because a stationary, time-stamped, character-operated digital video camera is central to one of the most memorable cinematic devices in horror's history.

The daytime, as is so often the case, seems for the most part perfectly safe; even as tensions inevitably rise, Micah and Katie find little to fear around their house before bedtime. But the wee small hours are another story, as Micah leaves his camera running with a special night-vision lamp in order to capture evidence of whatever is or is not happening. The couple climbs in bed, the lights go out, and a title (starting with "Night #1" and the date) is laid over the soon-familiar monochrome frame. The first time we see it there's a funny confidence to the flourish; by "Night #3" a Pavlovian fear precludes a smile. And so the film builds, an upward slope for sure but punctuated throughout by an unbearably effective dynamic of tension and release, elevating Paranormal Activity far above the empty gimmick it could well have been. Years from now, you may or may not remember logging into a website to vote for it, but odds are good you'll remember the night you actually saw it.

Indeed, the best reason to experience Paranormal Activity is tied directly into all the hype. Movie theaters have been having a harder time luring people out of their living rooms, and when we do spend a night at the movies we're confronted with gouging prices, assaultive advertising, and ill-behaved audiences. You'll experience all of these things at a screening of Paranormal Activity, too, but Paramount has positioned the film as a uniquely must-see happening, packing theaters and then scaring people like they're not used to being scared. The result is strangely communal, a personal psychological experience shared with 100 perfect strangers screaming, clenching, and clutching in time. However shrewdly calculated, this is a genuine event film, worth seeing with a big, loud, unsuspecting audience if it's worth seeing at all.