Paranormal Activity is so cheesy that it ought to come with a warning for the lactose intolerant. Further warnings for those who demand sympathetic characters, logic in their storytelling or who are inclined to vertigo induced by shaky, handheld camerawork also apply to this tale of a young San Diego couple’s battle with a demon. An heir to the now decade-old Blair Witch Project, first-time filmmaker Oren Peli's attempt to turn no budget into a virtue with things that go bump in the night delivers moderate suspense and some scares. Paramount picked this up off of the festival circuit, no doubt hoping for a Blair Witch style payday. But as Paranormal Activity lacks that film's novelty, a $140 million domestic gross is unlikely to happen again. Regardless, the studio's targeted marketing campaign recruits Paranormal Activity fans to spread the gospel via Facebook and Twitter, and so should generate healthy returns.
English major Katie (Katie Featherston) and day trader Micah (Micah Sloat) are happily cohabiting except for one nagging wrinkle—Katie is convinced that the house is haunted. He buys a video camera to document the phenomenon. The couple also brings in an expert (Michael Bayouth) on paranormal activity, but his field of expertise is ghosts and he informs the couple that the item infringing on their personal space is, in fact, a demon. Moving out of the house will not help as Katie reveals that whatever this thing is it has been in her life since she was a little girl. Perhaps, as Katie suggests, it doesn't like Micah's camera or perhaps it is jealous of his relationship with her, but whatever the reason this is one angry demon and getting more enraged by the day. Night after night over a period of about a month, Micah's camera records its escalating hostility.
Peli's use of sound to generate fear is the movie's strongest asset. It is creepy to hear heavy footsteps on the stairs when there is no one there or to listen to what sounds like entire bookcases being hurled across a room. Also effective is the way the lingering camera emphasizes the vulnerability of the sleeping couple in the bed, especially when the sudden movement of a sheet underlines the idea that they are not alone. Scenes like that are genuinely chilling. It is too bad that they are undercut by the extremely silly. Lights turning on and off by themselves seem more the work of an otherworldly prankster than evil incarnate. A scene where the bedroom door moves back and forth, controlled by an invisible hand, merely makes the demon look nervous, rendering it less frightening.
The idea of a portable demon that affords no means of escape is clever, or would be if the idea were believable. But Katie is way too happy in the beginning to convince us that she’s spent most of her life living with a stalker to whom temporary restraining orders do not apply. Has it been dormant for a while? Did she think it had gone away? Those nagging little details are never really addressed, emphasizing the tale's implausibility and working against the horror.
The weakest element in the movie is the couple at the heart of it. Katie is a whiner and Micah is a motormouth idiot with less common sense than an opossum. Even when it becomes obvious that Katie has not been imagining things and that they are in deep trouble, he alters neither his constant yammering nor his obnoxious demeanor. There should be some rooting interest in Katie and Micah somehow triumphing over their spectral intruder, but they are both so annoying that it is hard not to come to the conclusion that they deserve this demon infestation. But trapped in the house with this prattling, airhead couple, does it deserve them?
Cast: Katie Featherston, Micah Scott and Michael Bayouth
Director/Screenwriter: Oren Peli
Producer: Jason Blum and Oren Peli
Rating: R for language.
Running time: 99 min.
Release Date: September 25 ltd.