Hello, 'Fraidy Cats!
Let me get this out of the way right now: Paranormal Activity is not the "great white hope" of modern horror films that the highly-effective trailer first led me to believe.
Even the set-up is perfect fodder for a classic bargain-basement fright flick: a young, upwardly mobile couple pick a new, modern house to move into and strange things begin to happen to them almost immediately. A somewhat skeptical Micah (Micah Sloat), in a brilliant and almost comedically one-dimensional take on "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus", decides he's going to take charge of the problem and help his beloved Katie (Katie Featherston) cope with what she claims is a case of serial hauntings.
Frankly it's a brilliant set up rivaling that of 1999's indie hit The Blair Witch Project. I was fortunate enough to have seen Blair Witch just a week after it was released and the only thing I knew about it was an impeccably faked documentary and a viral internet campaign that set the film up perfectly as a modern urban legend. As a result I bought the whole thing hook, line and sinker; so much so that the final scene of that film had me completely unnerved.
I tried re-watching Blair Witch years later and although I felt that the ending was still impactful, I began to realize that most of the film was much ado about nothing: just a bunch of running around, spooky totems and tearful confessions to the camera.
Regrettably that's also the best way I can describe Paranormal Activity. Sorry, but moving doors and flowing bed sheets do not a fright fest make. Frankly, it takes far too long to get to the "A"-list material. Also, when the nature of the threat is revealed, this also brings the film down a peg or two in my eyes since it goes from the potential of some modest but cool spectral manifestations to promises that the film's limited budget can't possibly hope to deliver on.
There's also a woefully inadequate use of sound here which should have been director Oren Peli's greatest (and most inexpensive) weapon. Just one viewing of a film like Ju-On should illustrate to anyone just how effective and creepy the original use sound can be.
Also, I know the budget was limited here but some more manifestations of the threat would have served it well. Now, I'm not talking about CGI crap as exhibited in the wretched re-make of The Haunting, I'm talking about the audience being allowed to half-glimpse things as the hand-held camera moves back in forth, frantically scanning for the source of the disturbance.
All is not lost here, though. One of the things that often derails "Haunted House" flicks is the fact that the audience can't understand why the characters just don't up and leave the place. The film-makers get around this pitfall quite cleverly by making Katie the spiritual nexus for all things spooky.
Also, the level of restraint on tap here is remarkable for a modern film and it should be praised. It's this dedication to subtlety that still allows the film to add up as a pretty creepy and borderline genuine experience. Finally, the denouement does deliver somewhat, giving us a finale that brings Blair Witch to mind. Paranormal Activity is a flawed but earnest effort that deserves considerable attention and hopefully will inspire other film-makers to reach for even more ambitious heights of terror.