There ARE really only two ways to view this movie. The first is to see it with a large crowd of giddy, screaming teens or college students. The second would be home alone, late at night. Anything in between won't work because, frankly, this is more of a cultural event like The Blair Witch Project than a meaningful cinematic experience. It's pop culture at its most immediate and so, its impact will be fleeting.
But Blair Witch got there first, dulling some of the "look at this mysterious video we found" sheen. I suppose the $11,000 budget — a third the cost of the 1999 phenomenon — lowers expectations suitably enough, and thank God the story doesn't feature anything as blatantly moronic as a character throwing away the besieged group's much-needed map. Still, Oren Peli's low-res scarefest suffers from many of the same narrative shortcomings, flaws that could have easily been avoided. But we'll get to those.
For those of you who haven't been waiting in anticipation for this midnight movie to go into wide release, Paranormal Activity is the supposedly homemade chronicle of demonic possession. Katie (Katie Featherston) is a twenty-something San Diego student living with her smart-ass day-trading boyfriend, Micah ("We're engaged to be engaged"). After dating for three years she finally fesses up to the weird nocturnal things have been happening around her since she was 8 years old. Micah (Micah Sloat) decides to try to capture these, well, paranormal activities on video. From there things get freaky weird, and, to be honest, effectively creepy.
Peli's simple premise, cheap effects and ability to gradually build tension from a locked-down camera shows he's a director who knows how to turn the screws and layer on the dread. Similarly, his actors, when not asked to behave irrationally (something poor Micah is asked to do too frequently), manage to bring an off-the-cuff authenticity to their barely sketched characters.
Unfortunately, Peli isn't much of a storyteller. His characters have no life outside the hermetically sealed confines of the video (don't they have any family or more than a single friend?). Katie's supernatural background is also frustratingly murky, prompting many more questions than answers. Blair Witch, for all its sophomoric hysteria, still laid out an elaborate and interesting legend in its pre-release Internet media blitz. And unlike, say, Cloverfield, which used the you-are-there video techniques to recast the traditional giant monster movie, Paranormal Activity more closely resembles the fleetingly visceral but ultimately shallow Open Water.
Still, to midnight moviegoers none of this will matter. Paranormal Activity is a rollercoaster ride, and considering its impossibly cheap price tag, a pretty decent one at that.
Now playing at AMC Forum 30, 44681 Mound Rd., Sterling Heights; 888-262-4386. Opens in wide release soon.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.