When I got up and left the theater after "Paranormal Activity," my initial reaction was that I had seen a skillfully crafted and effectively creepy little scary movie that may be a victim of its own hype.
It wasn't until I laid in bed and started hearing the creaks and taps in my own bedroom that I realized just how far under my skin the movie had gotten.
The latest in a long line of "found footage"movies, "Paranormal Activity" has been selling out midnight shows across the country for a few weeks. Rumor going around Hollywood is that Steven Spielberg, upon seeing it, brought the disc back and threw it away because he had experienced his own strange happenings after watching it. Several people walked out of early screenings because they were allegedly too terrified to stay to the end. Bloggers who saw the film in 2007 (it's waited for a release date while Dreamworks and Paramount sorted out their internal messes) raved that it was the scariest film ever made.
That's quite a burden to put on any horror film, particularly one made for $11,000 that relies solely on sound design and old-fashion trickery to scare audiences. Certainly there will be those who see the movie and leave proclaiming "it's not that scary" and many will feel the film was overhyped--it's the same that happened with "Blair Witch" 10 years ago, even though this film's hype is centered less on convincing us that it really happened and more on convincing us that if we go we will be scarred for life.
Right out of the gate, let me acknowledge that Paramount has been clever in its roll-out of this movie, staging midnight screenings and urging fans to demand the film to go wide. I do fear, however, that all the buzz may ultimately cripple a movie that, at its core, works because it's so low key and old-fashioned.
Hype aside, "Paranormal Activity" deserves a nationwide roll-out. Director Olin Peli's debut is taut, creepy and terrifying at the right moments and every goosebump it puts on your forearms is rightfully earned.
The premise is beautiful in its simplicity. A young couple buys a camera to document strange occurrences in their home. The young woman has a history of paranormal experiences, dating back to when she was eight. The boyfriend reacts just like any man would--at first scoffing and then, when things get bad, refusing to ask for help and trying to solve the problem on his own. A psychic drops by to warn the couple of the seriousness of the events and clarifies that it may be a demon, and not a ghost, that is terrorizing the home.
The film is staged much like "Blair Witch" in that the daylight allows for exposition and discussion and the nighttime--when the camera is stationary--is when all the freaky stuff happens. I won't spoil any of the surprises in the film, but let's just say that whatever is haunting the young couple starts off cordial enough and then, towards the end, gets really, really nasty.
Placing the camera on the tripod seems like a simple stylistic device but it's unrelenting focus--a stationary camera can't turn away--becomes unnerving when things get truly terrifying. There are no clever edits to pull us away from the scene and the audience's eyes are drawn to every shadow and slight movement. Aside from some rudimentary practical effects, Peli doesn't engage in much flash...the suspense of waiting for something to happen, the jolt when it does and the fear of the unknown, the dark corners of the screen, are enough to unnerve audiences. When the film unfurls its most terrifying scenes they are sudden and matter-of-fact that it's easy to forget that none of this is real.
It's a wonderful piece of crafstmanship and Peli has a wonderful time playing the audience like a piano. The daytime scenes lull us into a sense of complacency and then, in the evening, Peli shows a great knack for drawing out the suspense and digging into deep fears of the unknown and the vulnerability of sleep, when we're unable to see what's happening around us. He gets natural reactions from his actors, both of whom create likable characters and sell the reality of the situation.
For the most part, the film is disciplined and intelligently crafted--there's even a clever reason why leaving the home would do no good. The suspense is thick and the terror erupts so suddenly that screaming is virtually guaranteed. Only in its final moments does the movie succumb to Hollywood pressure, leaving behind subtlety for one last shock, a splash of violence and an ill-advised CGI shot.
But by that point I was pretty willing to be reminded that "it's only a movie."