Replace the Blair Witch with a pissed-off demon and exchange the woodland setting for a blank-slate suburban tract house, and you've got the basic idea of what to expect from Paranormal Activity, director Oren Peli's highly effective feature debut. The big difference is that while the potty-mouthed teens in the former movie made the dunderheaded decision to traipse off into the woods in search of a malevolent urban (rural?) legend -- all the poor-sap protagonists of Paranormal Activity wanted was a peaceful night's sleep in their own cozy bed. They don't get that, and odds are neither will you after enduring the slow-burn intensity of this nocturnal nerve-shredder.
Peli understands the mechanics of fear, and knows how to make them work within the structure of a simple story told in a common setting. By bringing the subjective style that has become so prominent in mainstream cinema right into our personal living space and imbuing it with a minimalist ferocity that's genuinely hard to shake, he creates a palpable atmosphere of impending dread that gradually builds to unbearable levels. Yes, folks, Peli and company's micro-budgeted (you could produce roughly four Paranormal Activities for the cost of one Blair Witch Project) mini-masterpiece of less-is-more horror is indeed the real deal. That's not to say there isn't a blemish or a plot hole to be found if you're so inclined to search; it's just that the way Peli's film methodically works on your basic fears is so forceful that hours after watching, while you're lying in bed surveying every shadow -- ears twitching at every creak of your mattress -- you'll be bleary-eyed and begging for those first rays of sunshine to come pouring through the shades.
When Katie (Katie Featherston) was just eight years old, her family home burned down under mysterious circumstances. She's convinced that the fire had something to do with the malevolent entity that has haunted her since childhood -- and lately the encounters have been getting worse. After Katie reveals her fears to live-in boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat), the couple sets up a video camera hoping to capture evidence of the haunting, and consults with a psychic. Later, when Micah brings home a Ouija board to communicate with the evil spirit, the floodgates are opened and the terror intensifies.
Given the mystery surrounding the production (a remake was planned and then scrapped, causing the film to be shelved for two long years following successful test screenings), not to mention the miniscule budget and subjective style, comparisons to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's 1999 breakthrough are inevitable (as evidenced in the opening sentence of this very review). But, truth be told, Paranormal Activity actually shares more in common with the controversial 1992 BBC production Ghostwatch than it does with the better-known Blair Witch, albeit without the bells and whistles that go along with pretending to be a live television broadcast hosted by respected news personalities. Regardless of similarities to any previous films, however -- including more traditional efforts like The Haunting -- Peli has accomplished the rare feat of crafting a film that's truly unique and terrifying his first time out of the gate. He certainly knows how to toy with an audience, too; the playful skepticism exhibited by Micah early on goes a long way in disarming us even if we know the couple is doomed from the start, and the steadily escalating series of events flow from the curiously mundane to chicken-skin freaky with such efficiency that the scares still score a direct hit on our subconscious fears of the unknown even when we begin bracing ourselves later on. Likewise, by making his supernatural antagonist something more than a simple ghost, Peli gives the film a sinister edge that sets it well apart from your typical haunted house film. Still, the ruse might not have been nearly as effective had the cast been populated by familiar faces, and by choosing a pair of incredibly naturalistic unknowns to play his protagonists, Peli affords us the rare opportunity to become truly immersed in the story.
Just about the only flaw in Paranormal Activity comes in the last three seconds or so, when the filmmakers abandon all subtlety to go for a Carrie-style goose that effectively cheapens an otherwise solid final fright. It's a minor criticism given that virtually every other scare in Paranormal Activity works so well, but even if that blunt shock cut fails to send you airborne, odds are the rest of them will still have you cowering in your seat during the movie, and quaking in the sheets hours later.