The no-budget ghost story Paranormal Activity arrives 10 years after The Blair Witch Project, and the two horror movies share more than a clever construct and shaky, handheld camerawork.
Like its predecessor, Paranormal Activity has been making waves through a viral marketing campaign that has been building positive buzz through early, sold-out college town screenings and Internet chatter. The film's title has become a nightly fixture among Twitter's trending topics, despite playing only midnight shows in 33 theaters when it opened last Friday.
This week it expands to 46 markets where it will play throughout the day and evening in more than 170 theaters. And, like Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity is bound to divide audiences who have absorbed the hype.
Best advice: See it early in its run — and late at night in a packed theater. Half the fun of the movie comes from the communal experience of sharing in something that feels like it hasn't been market-tested within an inch of its life.
The irony is that Paramount Pictures did initially test the film with the idea of having writer-director Oren Peli re-shoot it with a bigger budget. But the movie, which video-game designer Peli shot two years ago for a reported $15,000, played so well in that one screening that the studio decided go a different route, trimming the length and punching up the ending.
Paranormal Activity opens with a title card, thanking the families of Micah Sloat and Katie Featherstone as well as the San Diego Police Department, an immediate signal that the "found footage" we're about to see won't have a happy outcome.
Micah (Micah Sloat) has bought a video camera to document the "weird (stuff)" that has been happening in the two-story San Diego home he shares with his girlfriend of three years, Katie (Katie Featherstone).
It turns out that freaky things have been happening to Katie since her family's house burned down when she was eight. Since then, Katie has suffered through nightmares and felt the presence of a "shadowy figure" at the foot of her bed. The young couple consult a psychic (Michael Bayouth), who senses the bad mojo and refers them to a demonologist.
His other piece of advice: DO NOT buy a Ouija board. You don't want to open the lines of communication with this thing. Micah, being an arrogant young dude and a bit of an idiot, dismisses the tip and refuses any outside help. "This is my girlfriend, my house and I'm gonna' solve the problem!"
Micah's solution is to set up his new camera on a tripod at the foot of the couple's bed and document what happens while they sleep. The movie's genius comes from its slow-building tension as it returns night after night to this fixed location, a time code running in the lower right corner of the screen. The bedroom door leading to the upstairs hallway is ajar ... and then it's not.
The entire film takes place at the couple's cookie-cutter dwelling, its layout and furnishings indistinguishable from just about any other readymade home constructed in the past 20 years. Its ordinariness makes the eerie, nocturnal activities all the more terrifying, as does the anonymity of the actors adequately playing the leads.
The thinness of the premise is laid bare toward the end, but not enough to erase the horror of those silent, nighttime images seen through Micah's bedroom camera. Paranormal Activity owns a raw, primal potency, proving again that, to the mind, suggestion has as much power as a sledgehammer to the skull.
Paranormal Activity, a Paramount Pictures release, is rated R for language. Running time: 84 minutes. Three stars out of four.