There's some serious buzz regarding the newest fright flick, Paranormal Activity. Some are saying it's one of the scariest movies ever made. Some are finding themselves awake at night due to the terror they've witnessed in the film. With the tagline, "What happens when you sleep?" and its horrors unleasing mostly at nighttime, a frightened insomnia is understandable. With expectations in check, I ventured to the theater to check out Paranormal Activity. Is it scary? At times. Is it one of the scariest movies ever made? No. I'm afraid that's nothing more than strong rhetoric brought on by the initial shock of the film's aftermath, but not a true asset of the film as a whole.
Its premise is reminiscent of something like The Blair Witch Project. Using only a handheld camera, the film tells the story of a romantic couple living together, Micah, played by Micah Sloat, and Katie, played by Katie Featherston. Ever since Katie was eight years old, she has had a string of hauntings pollute her life. Even as she moved from town to town, the hauntings followed her, though inconsistently so. Some nights were peaceful while others were terrifying. Now she is living with her boyfriend and they have become much stronger. Micah, who is seemingly fascinated by the events, buys a camera hoping to document any paranormal activity that may be occuring in their home at night.
Paranormal Activity was made for a mere $15,000 and for what it sets out to do, it largely succeeds. With such a low budget, the film isn't about what you see, but rather what you don't see, which is sometimes scarier than anything the film can create. My imagination filled in the look of the demon and I only realize now as I write this that it was never actually shown.
Most impressive is how seamless the night scenes were. All (excluding the final night, one can assume) were done in one take, with the camera never cutting. This adds a necessary layer to its tonal desire for realism and includes moments that are absolutely terrifying. Whatever visual trickery was used for certain scares--scares that I dare not give away (though the trailer does a pretty good job of doing that for me)--worked superbly and really heightened the tension of what is, on the surface, a very simple movie.
As with any great horror film, there is plenty of downtime in between each haunting that gives you a feel for the personalities of the characters and provides the necessary amount of time for the viewer to establish their feelings for them. Most characters in horror films are simply fodder for the evil, with no distinguishable personalities. Thus, we usually don't care about them, but I cared about the characters in Paranormal Activity. They were likable, they loved each other and bad things were happening to them. The biggest boundary that must be overcome to create a scary movie is juggling the horror with human interaction and emotion. This movie does a superb job of doing that.
With that said, I feel the same way about Paranormal Activity as I do The Blair Witch Project (though ultimately, the former is much better than the latter). Taking it slow is essential to creating dread in a horror film, but this movie takes it a little too slow. The anticipation of what was going to happen to this poor couple was incredibly suspenseful at first, but that feeling slowly waned as the movie went on. By the time the big payoff at the end rolled around, I had become numb to its tricks. There are only so many times you can implement the same scare tactics, (footsteps, shadows, moving doors, etc.) before I start to lose interest.
Paranormal Activity is scary at times and there are moments that are guaranteed to creep under your skin, but it is not one of the scariest movies ever made. It is, however, one of the scariest movies in recent memory, but it doesn't come close to matching the brilliance of terrific freak-outs like John Carpenter's Halloween or The Exorcist, though it is not without merit. It's still better than 95% of mainstream horror offerings and should be seen in a theater if at all possible, even if it can't fully deliver on the buzz surrounding it.
Paranormal Activity receives 3.5/5