Preface number one: I love scary movies, and I’m pretty varied in what I like. The top five scariest films I’ve ever seen are The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the 2003 remake), Carrie (1976), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and The Amityville Horror (the 1979 original).
Preface number two: I watch a lot of SyFy and A&E shows, such as Ghost Hunters (both the original and international editions), Scariest Places on Earth, Paranormal State, and Extreme Paranormal. I’m not into the occult or witchcraft, I just have a healthy interest in “the other side” and, truth be told, I like that heart-racing feeling that good scares are prone to induce.
With that in mind, I was very excited to watch one of the most talked about little films of 2009, Paranormal Activity. The film itself is pretty simple (think a very stripped-down Blair Witch). A young couple (engaged to be engaged) is living in a home in sunny San Diego, California. But things tend to go bump in the night. The pair, Micah and Katie, decide to investigate (well, Micah is really the driving force behind the investigation), so they buy a video camera to document their experiences.
At least 80 percent of the film shows the day-to-day activities of the young couple, from eating breakfast, to brushing their teeth, to studying (Katie is a student) — all very normal (and boring). But the other 20 percent is weird. Without giving too much away, not only do things go bump in the night, but things move about, as well as start messing with the pair (Katie in particular). Even the use of a Ouija board and a paranormal expert doesn't seem to help them, and only seems to heighten the paranormal activity.
There are no extras on the DVD (except an alternate ending option), and the movie starts with no studio logos. Paranormal Activity is presented as “found footage from the local police” (the first shot is a title card from the producers thanking the local police department and Katie Featherston/Micah Sloat's parents for the footage). It also relies more on what viewers don’t see than what they do. There’s no gore, no creepy musical score, and nothing save night vision video footage that is very scary.
The entire film is shot in one setting (the home of director Oren Peli, in his directorial debut) in 10 days, and almost all of the special effects appear inexpensive (but effective, nonetheless). The actors, Sloat and Featherston, have slim acting resumes, and the film is also rumored to have not had a script, making the footage seem very "real."
Peli is a less-is-more kind of director, playing on the fact that sometimes what you don’t see is far scarier than what you do. However, once the film revealed its true haunted nature, I didn’t find it very scary (it went from “oooh scary, that could totally happen to me” to “that isn’t happening to me, so it’s not very scary anymore”). My disappointment grew with the fact that apparently there were at least three endings filmed. Two were included in the DVD I reviewed—one that left the door wide open for a sequel, and one that seemed much more fitting. As far as I can tell, the “sequel” ending was what was screened in theaters, and was also the result of notes given by Steven Spielberg after he watched a screener of the film.
What I can appreciate is the fact that the film cost $15,000 to make, which makes the fact that it’s been raking it in at the box office (in its first weekend it broke $7 million in only 200 theaters, grossed $9.1 million in its first week, and broke the record of highest-grossing weekend ever for a movie playing at less than 200 theaters) and now is bound to do the same on DVD pretty darn cool.
Paranormal Activity is presented in widescreen enhanced for 16:9 televisions with Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and Spanish 5.1 Surround (theatrical version only) and English, Spanish, and French subtitles. It has an 86-minute run time and is rated R for language.
Perhaps had I seen Paranormal Activity in the theater, I would have been more scared and jumpy. But the unrelatable plot twist, mixed with the multiple endings, left me feeling a bit duped by all the hype. Other than five minutes of moderate scares at the very end, Paranormal Activity was pretty tame.