The following review contains mild spoilers.
Paranormal Activity has been compared to the horror phenomenon that was The Blair Witch Project from a decade ago. They share many of the same characteristics, from the super low budget to the "things go bump in the night" mentality. However, if I can be so bold, I think Paranormal Activity trumps Blair Witch in almost every area, but particularly in its better crafting of slowly building tension into a crescendo that's almost unbearable.
Shot for a measly $15,000 over one week in writer/director/editor/producer Oren Peli's San Diego home, Paranormal Activity is the epitome of getting a lot out of a little. Done in the in-camera style of the aforementioned Blair Witch (and countless others from the last decade), we follow a young couple, Katie and Micah, who are trying to live their life after having moved in together, but a certain domestic disturbance is disrupting that. According to Katie, she has been haunted since she was a little girl, and her boyfriend Micah, sceptical at first, decides to take things into his own hands by filming the two of them as they sleep to try and capture "whatever paranormal phenomena is occurring or is not occurring."
Much like its scale and budget, the idea is small and simple but Peli gets the most out of pretty much every aspect. Reportedly he filmed over 70 hours of footage, and has whittled that down to just under 90 minutes, masterfully crafting tension that builds and builds for that entire time. Unlike Blair Witch, the scares keep coming in steady succession, with no unnecessarily long stretches of nothing scary happening. The film basically works in stages: we see Katie and Micah talking in normal conversation, then we cut to them getting ready for bed and then sleeping, and we watch from the camera Micah has set up in front of their bed.
The mysterious and freaky nighttime occurrences get worse and worse every time. We start off with keys in the middle of the living room floor after they were left on the counter, then move onto the bed sheets moving, and even Katie sleepwalking (including standing at the side of her bed for hours on end, as indicated by the timer at the bottom right of the screen). I won't give any more of the scares away, and even from those mentioned it probably sounds just too simple to be scary, but trust me, it is. How Peli is able to get so much out of so little is beyond brilliant, and I really look forward to what he does with his next project, which is purported to be an alien-related project entitled Area 51. Undoubtedly his budget on that one will be bigger.
Speaking of the budget, it's one of the reasons that Peli probably was forced to get so creative. Although this is a modern movie, it's reminiscent of some of the stuff from decades ago — when there wasn't the computer technology to make giant fighting robots appear real (sorry, Transformers) — as it utilizes the technique of making the audience use its imagination to imagine the worse. What actually takes place isn't as bad as the anticipation of it, and that's the key to how and why Paranormal Activity functions so well. There's no gore, no over-the-top special effects — everything is stripped away to the bare essentials and it just works.
Another crucial element are the performances of complete unknowns Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat — playing characters with the same names as them (for authenticity? Just for the hell of it?). They're entirely believable. It really is like we're watching genuine home video footage of the couple as they go about their daily lives and, of course, deal with these paranormal goings-on. We actually care what happens to these two, whether it be down to the terrifying events or with their relationship. For example, Katie falls out with Micah for wanting to "provoke" whatever's disturbing them by getting a Ouija board. I wouldn't be surprised if the less sophisticated viewer actually mistook it for real found footage, something I'm sure would please the filmmakers.
The film masterfully builds up tension from the get-go, showing us just a bit at a time whenever the couple set up the camera, turn out the lights, and go to sleep. I won't give away the ending but it goes without saying it's an absolute cracker (at least in terms of how this particular plot could be resolved) that should have most audiences jumping out of their seats and then thinking about it long afterward.
It's not the scariest movie of all time (one wonders how well it will stand up on repeat viewings) as some have touted it, but for a low-budget horror of this kind, Paranormal Activity is impressive stuff. And with a $100 million-plus and rising box office return, it just shows you audiences are hungry for something from the horror genre that doesn't involve torture. Hollywood, can we have more of this kind of thing, please?