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Terrifying Paranormal Activity casts a long shadow

by Glen Baity

For the past several years, if you wanted to see a scary movie in a movie theater, you couldn’t hope for much beyond one of the seeming dozens of Saw sequels.

Finally, after years of torture porn, middling J-horror ripoffs and awful reboots like Friday the 13 th , American audiences have a chance to see something in a theater that is genuinely frightening. It’s called Paranormal Activity, and it’s a cultural event.

It’s also, after all this time, a fresh take on the haunted house story. The film should be seen by anyone who loves a good scare, but be prepared to sleep with the light on for a few days.

Now open nationwide thanks to an innovative “Demand It” online campaign, the film has steadily climbed up the box-office charts in the last few weeks. The story behind the movie is interesting — it was shot in seven days and cost less than a used Honda — but it’s not as interesting as the movie itself, which chronicles several weeks with haunted young couple Micah and Katie (Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston). After hearing a series of odd noises in their house at night, they do what any products of Generation YouTube would do: They buy a camera and start filming. Paranormal Activity is comprised solely of the footage from this camera.

By day, Micah captures their conversations, which become more harried and desperate as the film progresses. At night, he sets the camera on a tripod, aimed at the bed so they can see if anything unusual happens while they’re asleep.

The tale of the tape is unsettling at first — a spooky noise here, a creaky door there — and then downright terrifying, as the clearly hostile presence starts approaching the bedroom with pounding footsteps, breathing down their necks and clawing at their flesh. The film solves the “Why don’t they just move out?” conundrum in an interesting way: It turns out Katie has experienced this same phenomenon at intervals for her entire life, no matter where she has lived. It’s not the house that’s haunted, it’s the people, a fact that only heightens the anxiety. There is literally nowhere for these two to run.

Paranormal Activity is light on gore and special effects, which only adds to the terror. The comparisons to The Blair Witch Project are obvious and appropriate. Both films rely on the viewer’s imagination, and both films are successful as a result. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: There’s simply nothing scarier than what you conjure up in your own head. Director/ writer Oren Peli understands this, and injects his film with some of the most heart-stopping moments of any horror film in decades. The v’rit’ style means no music and no standard horror movie cues, so the viewer never quite knows when to brace himself for a shock. It’s especially jarring when the spooky stuff starts happening in broad daylight, when things are supposed to be safe and calm. Their ghost doesn’t even wait until the dead of night to rattle his chains.

It should be noted that this strategy requires strong actors, and Sloat and Featherston do a fantastic job carrying the film for an incredibly tense hour and a half. The two have a natural chemistry, and more importantly, they speak and act like people you know — in most scenes they don’t even seem to be acting.

Indeed, part of what makes Paranormal Activity so remarkable is how unremarkable its setting and characters are. It doesn’t happen in some creepy old estate out in the woods — it’s a fairly new house in an upperclass suburb of San Diego. You’ve met a million couples like Micah and Katie. You’ve seen a million houses like theirs in a million similar subdivisions. Everything else about their lives is utterly normal, even boring. The implication is clear: This could happen to you.

Paranormal Activity isn’t the scariest movie I’ve ever seen — The Shining still sits atop that list, and so it ever shall — but it’s the first new horror movie in a long time to crack the top five. I’m always worried about quality films that arrive on a wave of hype, because they’re ripe for a backlash. But when it’s this good, you can understand the evangelism. To be honest, I didn’t fully appreciate Paranormal after walking out of the theater, and you might not either. But once you’re back in your perfectly normal house in your perfectly normal neighborhood, and you hear a sound that can’t be immediately explained, you’ll realize just how thoroughly the film has worked its way into your subconscious. This one will follow you home.

To comment on this article, send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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