Ah, the joys of October horror movies. This is my review of The Blair Witch Project 2 -- er, I mean, Paranormal Activity.
To make up for a lack of information from the previews, this is another movie shot from a "real" perspective, similar to The Blair Witch Project and more recently, Cloverfield. In this case, we (the audience) are meant to believe that these events actually occurred, which for some viewers will be the main source of horror in it. Sorry if you take that as a spoiler, but I don't think it's inappropriate to acknowledge the fact that this is a movie; it does have a director, and actors who have gone on to do other movies since (knowledge which might have been useful to the adult male in the front row of my screening who at one point whimpered, "This shit is real!"). But for the sake of its realism, Paranormal Activity (PA) has no credits and opens simply with the line "Paramount Pictures would like to thank the families of [character names]." For the rest of the film, we see only footage shot from a camera that the main character bought to document the weird things that have been going on in his house.
His girlfriend, who is reluctant about trying to film these events, has been haunted by some sort of demonic spirit. She is desperate to have it dealt with, presumably through exorcism, but her boyfriend disagrees and insists on filming the events first and trying to thwart the demon's plotting on his own. As the days pass, creepy things start to happen, and the demon's power seems to increase as Micah and Katie's relationship becomes increasingly tense.
During the day, we are given scenes of Micah carrying the camera around and mostly talking to Katie about everything that's going on. This is when all character development takes place, and we can see the progression of the relationship. During the night, Micah places the camera on a tripod so it can monitor anything odd that occurs in the room while they sleep. And yes, odd things do occur. I don't want to spoil any of them (okay, just an early one below, which I'll mark) for reasons I'll explain in a moment, but these occurances are the greatest strength of this film.
It's difficult to explain why these random things are so terrifying to audiences (the cause for many good reviews of PA), but I'm going to do it anyway. Imagine yourself sitting in a movie theater with a crowd of people. The scene is in the bedroom at night. The camera is fixed. It will not move no matter what happens, and it will focus on nothing in particular. *Mild Spoiler* An indicator in the lower right corner of the screen lets you know what time it is. The video fastforwards, and the timer flies through the hours. It stops at 2:00 AM and proceeds at normal time. This is when you know something is about to happen. You wait five seconds... nothing happens. Ten... Micah rolls over in bed. Fifteen.... the bedroom door slowly swings back and forth *End Spoiler*.
That's why this movie works. All the terror is in the anticipation of what's about to happen, and in a few cases, the shock of what actually does happen, assuming you find it shocking of course. To its credit, this is effective, and I admit that this is one of the creepiest movies I've seen. However, the biggest disadvantage of doing it this way is that it makes it almost worthless to see the movie more than once (and the main reason I don't want to spoil anything significant). Once you know what happens, you're done; it will never affect you the same way again as it does the first time, when you're just waiting, scanning the screen, watching for something to move or something out of place, or just something. My point here is that this movie succeeds in toying with your attention and building huge amounts of anticipation, but it fails in delivering anything horrific (or even interesting) enough to watch more than once.
The other thing I didn't like about PA was the daytime segments. The relationship between Micah and Katie is realistic enough, but after a while, it just doesn't seem like it's been worth your time to watch (that is, aside from the nighttime segments). Micah provides some good humor for the first few days, Katie argues with him over whether he should use a Ouija board to communicate with the spirit, and then after a while it just goes on and on and all I wanted to do was watch an endless nighttime segment of crazy shit happening in the bedroom for the rest of the movie.
But don't let that stop you. Really. Paranormal Activity is far from a bad film. In fact, it's one of the creepiest I've ever seen. I just can't imagine that you'd want to watch it again after the first time. I also think this is one that would be an entirely different experience on DVD. But if you really don't want to fork over the money to see it in theaters, at least do yourself the favor of watching it alone (to avoid friends laughing or otherwise spoiling the mood) and in the dark. You might lose a bit of sleep over it, but at least you can say you got the full effect.
Caius's rating: 3 stars