Film review by: Witney Seibold
Ten years after “The Blair Witch Project” (and nearly 30 after “Cannibal Holocaust”), we have Oren Peli’s surprisingly scary, low-budget “Paranormal Activity,” another film shot in amateur documentary style, featuring a few neophyte twentysomethings investigating the supernatural. In an age when most horror filmmakers know no better than to stoop to cheap shock and brutally disgusting torture, it’s refreshing – sometimes brilliant – to see a film that deals with things like growing dread and quiet terror; seeing someone get their feet cut off is not so scary as a door that moves on its own. Here we have a film that taps into fear and not mechanical gore.
(I am not disparaging gore, mind you; I appreciate a good gore movie to no end. What I object to is the way gore is often used, which is to cynically disgust the audience, rather than thrill).
“Paranormal Activity” is scary. I was frightened by this film. It will remind you of nightmares you’ve had, of the misplaced childhood bedtime dread you used to feel when you still believed that there were ghouls pressing their faces up against your bedroom windows at night. The fear of something creeping under the covers, grabbing your ankles, and dragging you onto the floor. The violence these ghosts had in mind for you could never be imagined, and their agenda could not be argued. These are the ghosts in “Paranormal Activity.”
Our two players are Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat, pronounced mee-kah). Unlike its predecessors, “Paranormal Activity” does not purport to be real, although you wouldn’t know it by looking. Katie is cutesy and kind of shallow, and has been plagued by a mysterious… presence her whole life. Her live-in boyfriend Micah is enlisted to film her and the ever increasing nighttime disturbances they seem to be experiencing in their house. Their daytime conversation is usually bickersome, as she’s a whiner and he’s a massive, massive macho douche. Every night, though, while they sleep, they set up a camera in their bedroom, and we begin to see small signs of what Katie has been talking about: a door will gently swing open, a sound will bang through the house, scratching and whispering become more and more audible.
Every day the two of them argue about what they experienced the night before. She wants to call a proper exorcist, but he, being the macho man that he is, insists on filming the cool stuff, and dealing with it himself. Some of these sequences begin to grate on the nerves. However, when the night filming begins, and the creepy stuff starts up, we’re pinned in our seats.
Yes, this film is as scary as you’ve heard, so long as you’re open to being scared; I know there was a lot of audience backlash for “The Blair Witch Project,” and something similar could happen to “Paranormal Activity.” I’d be tempted to call this one of the better experiences I’ve had at the movies this year. It’s not a film that trades in cinematic panache or strength of character, but it has the raw frightening terror that seems to be lacking in a lot of modern horror.
2009 has been a strong year for genre films in general, in fact. “Orphan,” “Taken,” “Black Dynamite,” “Inglourious Basterds,” and “Drag Me to Hell” have all been standouts. This one can be added to that list.
N.B. I can’t complete this review without mentioning something kind of base, and I apologize to everyone involved for making it: Katie Featherston has fantastic breasts, and they are kind of a distraction. Micah Sloat is a slim, good-looking, oft-be-shorted guy, and he’s kind of a distraction. Their good looks don’t distract from the film’s oomph (like in, say “Cloverfield”), but… well, it can be distracting.