Film Review: Paranormal Activity

Effective jolts await in this ultra-low-budget haunted-house tale, but audiences will need extraordinary patience.

Hoping to catch lightning in a bottle (or the ghost in the machine), Paramount Pictures has been treading carefully with its release of Paranormal Activity, a pickup from Slamdance 2008 whose ridiculously low budget of $15,000 and cinéma-vérité approach to the supernatural evoke that ultimate sleeper success, The Blair Witch Project. The movie’s utter lack of production value has mandated an unconventional word-of-mouth strategy that incorporates midnight debut screenings in 13 college towns and a website competition to determine which parts of the country will get it next.

It’s a smart move, since much of Paranormal Activity is as exciting as the outtakes from a particularly dull episode of “Big Brother.” Careful handling is a must for the picture to capitalize on its strength—an incremental sense of dread that leads to some genuine jolts in the final half-hour. Those shocks should generate an avid cult following, but writer-director Oren Peli’s housebound horror tale is unlikely to cast a massive box-office spell like the Blair Witch phenomenon.

The setup is as elemental as can be. Young middle-class San Diego couple Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherson) are being spooked by strange noises in their new home. Eager for answers, Micah decides to set up night-vision camera equipment in their bedroom, in addition to his own roving camcorder. (As in Blair Witch, all the action is purportedly found footage from this amateur shoot.)

We soon learn that Katie has a history of otherworldly encounters, dating back to a tragic incident from her childhood. The couple calls in an ineffectual psychic, Micah tempts the spirit world with a Ouija board, but their after-dark visitations just get louder and more terrifying, culminating in one particularly momentous night.

The most effective sequences stem from the time-coded bedroom surveillance footage (always speeded up to the moments when doors open by themselves and shadows climb the walls). The banality of the couple’s day-to-day existence when they’re not hearing unwelcome guests enhances the sense of realism, but it can be awfully trying for viewers who just want to get to the good stuff already. Sloat and Featherson have a laid-back naturalism that serves the premise well, and Sloat is just smug enough that we kind of welcome the hell that awaits him.

Paranormal Activity ultimately does deliver in a way that Blair Witch never did, but its achingly slow buildup is a test not just of an audience’s patience but the power of hype surrounding the latest alternative scary movie.