In 'Paranormal Activity,' Fear Factor Runs High
By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, Oct. 12, 2009
"Paranormal Activity" has emerged as the out-of-nowhere sensation of the fall season. It's the sleeper hit that makes audiences too petrified to ever sleep again.
Having attained its goal of logging one million online "demands" from fans who voted to bring the movie to their respective towns (and after earning an unprecedented $8 million on fewer than 200 screens around the country), "Paranormal Activity" officially opens in wide release Oct. 16, just in time to further harness the power of social media and lure even more eager-to-be-unsettled parties into theaters before Halloween. But as fascinating as the movie's promotional strategy and its corresponding Twitter chatter may be, what people really want to know is this: Is "Paranormal Activity" really that scary?
The answer? Yes, as long as you're patient. This genuinely chilling, low-budget indie -- shot back in 2006 by first-time filmmaker Oren Peli -- tells the story of a demonic force plaguing a grad student and, by extension, her boyfriend within the claustrophobic walls of their sparsely furnished San Diego home. "You can't run from this," a psychic helpfully tells Katie (Katie Featherston), who has been haunted by eerie disturbances since childhood, in one of the movie's opening scenes. "It will follow you." So much for trying to thwart this thing by making a Starbucks run.
Katie's gadget-obsessed boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat, who, like Featherston, is making his film debut here) decides the couple's best defense against this alleged force is a well-placed camera. So he rigs one up in their bedroom and attempts to document exactly what happens during the wee hours, after the pair has tucked into their fluffy, king-sized comforter.
At first, little registers. One night, they get audio of a faint rumbling sound. On another, they record a door moving by itself. And eventually, after the overly confident Micah ignores the psychic's warnings and gets his hands on a Ouija board, things get really freaky.
Peli's approach, with its purposely amateurish camerawork, dimly lit bedroom scenes and the implication that the footage we are seeing is "real," borrows more than a few pages from the "Blair Witch Project" playbook. But it works.
The film's suspense, like "Blair Witch's," is the sort that lurks in shadows, forcing viewers to strain their eyes to see what, exactly, is creeping into Katie's and Micah's bedroom while they slumber. Admittedly, the most horrifying scenes -- and truly, a couple of them will inject sub-zero temperatures directly into your spine like some sort of arctic epidural -- come during the last 20 minutes of the movie, a fact that may frustrate those who expect at least a couple of payoffs before the halfway point. But those scenes are effective precisely because of their tardiness.
Peli intentionally lets us watch, night after night, as Katie and Micah retire for the evening and brace for the worst. Sometimes nothing happens at all. Sometimes they wake up in the morning and simply find that a set of car keys has inexplicably moved. All of those mundane moments lull the viewer into a false sense of security so that the shocks, when they finally come, hit hard.
Yes, some may find a few quibbles rattling around in their brains afterward. (Example: If Micah is so tech-savvy, why doesn't he stream these videos on the Internet so someone could potentially see what's happening in real time and intervene?) And a few steely, stubborn souls may even insist that the movie didn't really creep them out that much.
But those people should not be surprised later, post-"Paranormal," if they find themselves wide awake in bed at 3 a.m., certain that they hear a faint, low-frequency rumble coming from downstairs, the sound of a demon waiting to make his mark.
Paranormal Activity -- R, 99 minutes. Contains the kind of language most of us would use if harassed by demons. Area theaters.