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Paranormal Activity Falls Short of “Blair Witch Project’s” Shock Value

Shane Steinberg | Thursday, October 29, 2009

Writer-director Oren Peli’s “Blair Witch”-inspired cult classic in the making, “Paranormal Activity,” is the closest thing to actually being worthy of being called a “horror film” since its near identical twin forever made camping in the woods terrifying nearly 10 years ago. It takes cues from everything from its predecessor’s viral marketing campaign, to its medium, making it seem a near replica of “Blair Witch,” thus signaling a departure from everything that has plagued the recent “Saw”-inspired horror genre that has been horrifying, but for all the wrong reasons.

The film is filled with rawness and a sense of believability, and thankfully lacks any sort of post-production touch-ups, over-the-top scares, pop-outs that are just there for kicks and any semblance of unnecessary gore. Instead, the film builds off of mental suggestion manifested in a keen eye for tension-ridden suspense that is so masterfully built up through the use of a static video camera.

“Paranormal Activity” follows a young couple, Micah and Katie. Katie claims to be haunted by some unknown presence in their new house. Her history with such hauntings is persistent and therefore alarming, but not to her immature, more-curious-than-anything-else, testosterone-driven boyfriend, Micah, who gets the bright idea to film the couple during the wee hours of the night to see what’s really going on, if anything. What ensues is a whole lot more than either of them is ready to handle, and as the couple loses their grip on the situation, and on each other, the problem becomes increasingly more horrifying, with the camera there to document it all.

Micah is the real diamond of a character here because of his believability and his ultimate progression through the film. His curiosity is real and understandable, and the fun-turned-concern-turned-terror that he goes through evolves in such a way that he acts as a microcosm for the audience itself, and how someone in his shoes would in fact deal with the eerie happenings in his home that plague his girlfriend. We live his terror, not necessarily hers, and that makes the journey all the more enjoyable.

All of the suspense, all of the build up — and all of the hoopla behind the film, really — pays off in the last 30 seconds of the film. Or maybe it doesn’t. Like “The Blair Witch Project,” everything is thrust onto the screen during the all-or-nothing closing scene, culminating in what will either be interpreted as a mightily satisfying scare of all scares that’ll leave you disturbed long after the film ends, or a predictable gag that’s ultimately uneven and too “by the book.” It happens so quickly that not even a breath is spared before its over, and in the end, it doesn’t have the same force, nor shock value, nor lingering affect that it tries to have.

The film straddles the line of believability but never quite settles deep enough under the skin that it loses the vibe of being just a film, and one that despite its producers exhaustive efforts, is, in the end, fictional. It’s a shame too, because there are a couple of instances in the film when even the most horror-resistant viewer can’t help but be in an “okay-I’m-kind-of-freaked-out-right-now-let’s-see-what-happens-next” state. It’s in these moments that the audience is swept under a cover of eeriness that tugs at the nerves and sends shivers down the spine, but the tragedy here is that it’s in the successive moments that the feeling is lost.

Horror is a only breath away—real horror the likes of which hasn’t been seen in theaters for quite some time—but it never quite manifests itself. Instead, the film is rather choppy in the weirdest sort of way. For you see, suspense is built up masterfully and the scares are separated by enough story that believability isn’t sacrificed, but when the audience is really pulled in and the opportunity to become a truly great horror film presents itself, the film loosens its vice grip. If only it capitalized on the opportunity, this would be a truly scary film. Instead, it looms much larger than most of the other garbage that passes as “horror” these days, but falls quite short of the “Blair Witch” plateau.