A decade after filling America with pants-wetting fear, The Blair Witch Project still haunts Hollywood. Filmmakers emulate its faux-documentary, first-person narrative style, while studios seek the next no-budget horror flick that can become a $100 million word-of-mouth hit. Paramount Pictures bets that Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity will similarly set pulses and bladders racing.
Tapping into the power of “Web 2.0,” Paramount has used social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter as well as fan voting via Eventful.com to gin up interest in Paranormal. The movie's currently playing in Atlanta but expands to 2,000 screens nationwide Fri., Oct. 23 to compete with Saw VI’s torture porn. The Paranormal hype feels slightly more manufactured than Blair Witch’s sleeper-hit status (which wasn’t exactly free of marketing calculation, either). Fortunately, Paranormal’s lo-fi haunted house tale elicits enough delicious dread to justify the 21st-century ballyhoo.
With no conventional credit sequences to speak of, Paranormal unfolds from the point of view of Micah Sloat’s camcorder. Micah’s girlfriend, college student Katie Featherston, claims to have experienced minor supernatural phenomena all her life. Now that they’ve moved in together, Micah hopes to record the episodes and make a killing. At first the poltergeist-style incidents amount to mysterious footsteps and objects seeming to move by themselves, but they become more extreme and threatening as the couple’s relationship begins to disintegrate. Before you ask, “Why don’t they just get the heck out of there?” the premise holds that the haunting centers on Katie herself, and no fixed location — leaving could make things worse.
While Blair Witch has inspired seemingly countless imitators, the cinema verité style can prove a healthy exercise for horror filmmakers. Instead of lazily relying on screeching sound effects, eerie music, and sudden editing to spook the audience, directors like Peli must build tension gradually from constrained points of view. Costing an estimated $15,000, Paranormal’s most skin-crawling moments frequently come from a stationary camera trained on the couple’s bed and the darkened hallway leading to the bedroom. Apart from one brief scene, Paranormal never leaves the couple’s modest, split-level California home (Peli’s real-life house). The closets and crawlspaces become increasingly sinister, despite their mundane appearances — a rippling bed sheet can prove more horrifying than the gore-drenched ghouls of more conventional schlocky movies.
Apart from a few briefly glimpsed supporting players, including a psychic who wonders whether the unearthly presence is a ghost or a demon, Paranormal is a two-character tale. Like Blair Witch, Paranormal doesn't rely on scripted dialogue and required Sloat and Featherston (performing under their own names) to improvise their conversations.
More character work and coaching could have helped the film, however. We know that they’re “engaged to be engaged,” but Micah’s callous obsession with the video camera and Katie’s increased resentment serve as nearly the only specific details we get about their relationship. Featherston delivers a sympathetic, layered performance, her girl-next-door sweetness increasingly shot through with anger, terror and sleep deprivation. Sloat, however, comes across as one of the most foolhardy jerks in horror cinema — which is saying something — as he ignores his girlfriend’s feelings and even taunts the unseen entity, if it even exists.
Nevertheless, Paranormal stealthily leads up to some terrifying moments that may seep into your nightmares. If you’re intrigued, definitely see it in a movie theater, since the claustrophobic, faux-documentary effect will be blunted on video. Be forewarned, though, that Paranormal Activity makes you so sensitive to sounds and movements that a noise in the theater — say, if the heat comes on with a thump — may make jump out of your skin.