Compared to The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity has it easy. Sure, this horror film—shot in about a week’s time for roughly $11,000 and ushered into theaters with the support of Steven Spielberg (now there’s an Armond White review I’d want to read)—will surely suffer a similar backlash as did that ’99 independent powerhouse, having also garnered mostly laudatory notices prior to its mainstream release. Yet, 10 years down the road from Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s lost-in-the-woods spookfest, the stakes are significantly lower. In the midst of much similar first-person ilk (Cloverfield, Quarantine, etc.) and the dawning of the YouTube era, audiences are slightly more conditioned and patient for this kind of material, so it is somewhat disappointing that Paranormal Activity might be the most straightforward and borderline pandering member of this slowly expanding genre.
The film is genuinely creepy in conception. Katie (Katie Featherston; like Blair Witch, Paranormal’s actors also use their first names in character) has experienced hauntings of a various sort her whole life; from the routine presence of a shadowy being at the foot of her bed as a child to the whisperings she occasionally hears at night, it’s obvious to her and those close to her that something is connected to her beyond the realm of the physical. Micah (Micah Sloat), Katie’s live-in boyfriend, leaps at the opportunity to potentially capture the spirit on camera, toting his new digital gadgetry around the house seemingly at all times and leaving it on a tripod in their bedroom at night. The film as we see it is the result of his persistence in said quest, even in the face of the possibility that his actions only antagonize the malevolent force. What starts off small—random noises and inexplicably moving objects—grows into a wave of terror seemingly designed to upend the couple’s sanity. That the delusional Micah thinks he has any control over the situation at all (at one point, he sprinkles powder throughout the house to capture footprints) seems only to give the demon more opportunities to scare the shit out of them.
Props are due to writer-director Oren Peli for the sheer utilization of resources on display, and as far as a per-dollar ratio goes, Paranormal Activity is probably the most creatively efficient horror film of the decade. Alas, whereas a banal setting and murky images are to its benefit, an overly schematic narrative feed is not, with the film’s ultimate handicap being that it shows and tells us too much for its purportedly natural, off-the-cuff approach to achieve full potency. Eerie happenings caught on camera at night over the course of the narrative’s three-week period are shown to the audience as they transpire (to be discovered in the morning by Micah and Katie), and even the relatively minor technical embellishments used therein (time lapses and fadeouts aplenty) result in a strange dramatic disconnect; simple jump cuts would have preserved a more consistent sense of mundane horror. Similarly does the pronounced story of a tragedy in Katie’s youth all but neuter an otherwise shocking reveal late in the film. While one doesn’t hope for the hype machine to ultimately destroy an otherwise acceptable and accomplished bit of filmmaking, Paranormal Activity only occasionally rises above the status of a cute haunted house tour or hayride.