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Whimpers in the Dark

MOVIE REVIEW
Paranormal Activity (2009)

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Fantastic Fest

The escalating phenomenon that is “Paranormal Activity” carries with it a double-edged sword that sharpens with each additional sold-out show. Made three years ago, writer-director Oren Peli’s debut — a cinema verité take on the old haunted-house motif — has been bubbling into a lava-pool full of hot and bothered horror critics since its initial 2007 film-festival rounds. After a year’s worth of grassroots buzz-building, the film was picked up by Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks this past January. Lame-brained plans to remake Mr. Peli’s product were wisely ditched, leading to an underground wave of midnight screenings that kicked off late September. Its extremely limited run of midnight-or-later screenings has already brought in upwards of $535,000 for the $15,000-costing film, prompting Paramount Pictures to formally open the the company’s scrappy little cash calf in more markets — and at all hours — this weekend.

With its home-video camera approach and slight-of-hand scares, “Paranormal Activity” is being coined as the next “The Blair Witch Project” explosion. But with that comes a potential downside: The hype surrounding Mr. Peli’s haunted-house triumph runs the risk of trivializing the film itself, which would be a crime worthy of media-felt punishment. Confined to a single-house setting and only two characters, “Paranormal Activity” makes so much out of so little that you’d swear there’s editing room trickery at hand. It’s a master’s course in overachievement taught by a confident freshman.

“Paranormal Activity” feels like a film any aspiring director with a few bucks and his or her parents’ house vacated for a week could have attempted. Mr. Peli’s shot at low-budget terror centers on 20something couple Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat), who live in San Diego and have been experiencing nightly bumps. Micah gets the bright idea to buy a video camera and record at all times, in hopes of capturing the spirits on tape. He’s the borderline irritating funnyman alongside his sweet but disturbed girlfriend. A conversation with a doctor produces the intriguing tidbit that Katie has been dealing with these hauntings since she was eight years old; haunted house becomes a clever supernatural stalker. Taunted by Micah’s camera and his newly-purchased Ouija board, Katie’s unseen domestic demon begins gaining in momentum. The mere inexplicable turning on and off of hallway lights gives way to violent attacks, veering “Paranormal Activity” toward a chilling payoff complete with the desired goods.

Going into further plot detail would neuter the viewing experience for first-time watchers, and “Paranormal Activity” is a textbook recommend-but-don’t-spoil film. The dynamic between Katie and Micah is consistently engaging, a key factor of the film’s success since the spook-attack doesn’t reach its full swing until the final act. Especially during the film’s breathless home stretch, the power of “Paranormal Activity” lies in its sure-handed tricks — impeccably staged shocks that appear to be all too realistic. Never before have footprints in baking soda held the power to increase heart rates as they do under Mr. Peli’s control.

Imagine you’re under the sheets and counting sheep alongside your significant other. He or she thinks you've stepped out for a quick bathroom visit. If you were to bang on your bedroom walls and slam the door, the intended scare factor wouldn’t amount to more than a passing surge of adrenaline. Here, Mr. Peli relies on such gags, yet his anybody-could-do-’em tactics strangle nerves like a python.

“Paranormal Activity” owes more to Robert Wise’s 1963 masterpiece of implication, “The Haunting,” than it does to “The Blair Witch Project.” In the same breath, it’s worth noting that “The Haunting” and “Paranormal Activity” would make for a brilliant DVD-night double feature; both films are designed for TV screens in pitch-black living rooms. The difference between the works of Wise and Mr. Peli is that “The Haunting,” as great as it is, takes place in a mansion unknown to anyone not named Hugh Hefner; Katie and Micah’s pad, though, is interchangeable with any random suburban residence. For those prone to nightlights, “Paranormal Activity” should hit close to home.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY

Opened on Sept. 25 in the United States.

Written, directed and edited by Oren Peli; produced by Mr. Peli and Jason Blum; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Katie Featherston (Katie), Micah Sloat (Micah), Mark Fredrichs (Psychic), Amber Armstrong (Amber) and Ashley Palmer (Girl on Internet).

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