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Paranormal Activity

Believe the Hype

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Film critics can become a bit jaded over time. The sad reality is that most films released in a given year just simply aren’t worth your time. Most studios are more focused on demographics and marketing, rather than crafting a quality story. But, sometimes the simplest ideas make the best films and sometimes you can actually believe the marketing hype. Paranormal Activity is not just one of the scariest films you will see this year, it is also one of the best films you will see this year.

Paranormal Activity starts out with a young couple moving into a suburban starter home. The excitement of moving into their first home quickly wears off as Katie (Katie Featherston) begins to hear things in their new home. Her boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat) is more than a bit skeptical. But, the bumps in the night just won’t go away.

In an effort to gather some evidence around exactly what is happening, Micah sets up a video camera to tape the young couple in their bedroom at night as most of the disturbances take place late in the evening (like most solid ghost stories).

As Micah and Katie dig deeper to try to figure out what’s going on, the "presence" becomes increasingly agitated and doors opening and closing frighteningly evolves into phantom footsteps and unearthly noises. But, naturally, they never actually see anything. But, each night, things get worse and the relationship between the two begins to fray.

What’s wonderful about Featherston and Sloat is that they don’t feel like actors. They feel like an ordinary, young couple who could very well be living next door. Both have a very natural, unpolished presence that makes them accessible. Getting to know these two as they flirt, fight, and freak out makes it easy to connect with them. They’re generally good people being tormented by something they cannot get away from.

The simplicity of Paranormal Activity is part of what makes it so brilliant. Director Oren Pelli manages to wring an incredible amount of tension and terror out of his $15,000 budget. The constraint of a single location becomes an asset as one begins to feel trapped in this house with the couple and the terrible presence that lurks within.

The cheap, clunky cinema verite style puts you in the thick of Katie and Micah’s nightmare. Yes, we have seen this before in The Blair Witch Project, but I would argue that Paranormal Activity is more frightening given the oppressive claustrophobia associated with the single location and the constant escalation of tension. While The Blair Witch Project was creepy and disconcerting, Paranormal Activity is flat out terrifying.

Even if you don’t believe in ghosts or demons, there’s simply no way you can’t be terrified watching Paranormal Activity. The film plays on a number of primal fears that everyone can identify with -- the dark, being vulnerable, and losing one’s mind (among others).

Pelli digs deep into all of these fears increasing the tension palpably each night the couple stays in the house. As someone who is rarely terrified by horror films (and this is more of a psychological thriller really), my skin crawled on numerous occasions.

Oren Pelli deserves all the credit in the world for writing/directing one of the best films of 2009 (with a meager $15,000 no less). Paranormal Activity embodies the idea that constraints foster creativity. Pelli has crafted a tight and tense story with solid escalation and pacing. Micah and Katie are compelling and believable in their performances despite their relative inexperience. By all means, see this film….just don’t see it alone!