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PARANORMAL ACTIVITY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat
Director:  Oren Peli
Audio:  DTS HD 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  Alternate Ending, Trailers
Length:  86 Minutes
Release Date:  December 29, 2009

“Well, basically it could be two things.  It could be a ghost…or a demon.”

Film ***1/2

Paranormal Activity is the kind of movie that has to have Hollywood scratching its head.  With all the money and publicity they throw behind big noisy empty assembly line productions, here was a movie made for $15 grand with a store bought camera and entirely in the director’s home.  And word of mouth turned it into the year’s must-experience phenomenon and made it one of, if not THE most profitable movies of all time.

It’s the natural child of The Blair Witch Project and all of those reality ghost exploration shows we see on television.  There is a pair of actors, but they keep their own names, and the film boasts no logos and no real credits at the beginning or end, making it seem like it really is a home movie, turning a budget limitation into a strength and giving a sense of authenticity to the endeavor.

It also teaches some valuable lessons in what makes a picture scary, if anyone in the industry is willing to take notes.  This is a movie without gore, makeup, eerie music score or costly effects…yet it chills more effectively than 90% of what passes for fright flicks at the Cineplex these days.

The premise, like the production, is simple.  Katie has been experiencing unexplainable occurrences since she was a child, and as of late, they seem to be happening again.  Her boyfriend Micah buys a camera…he’s skeptical, but also fascinated by the idea of capturing something otherworldly on film.  And so all of the footage takes place in their lovely California home, a setting that grows increasingly LESS lovely as the days progress.

The meat of the film takes place in their bedroom.  No, not that...you can stop grinning now.  The camera rests stationary and films the couple while they sleep, and that’s when the show really begins.  And when it’s all said and done, you just might marvel at how completely unnerved you are, and how it happened to you with relatively simple techniques.

I could go through a list of how the movie begins at mild level of curiosity and eventually spirals down into a void of terror, but this is the kind of movie you should experience firsthand.  And the genius of this inexpensive production continues to expand…if this was a creepy phenomenon in a crowded movie theatre, imagine how much more so it is in your own home, especially with the lights down low.

I love horror movies, but very, very few of them actually scare me.  I’ve lost a couple of restful nights over Paranormal Activity.  When a filmmaker with less of a budget than what some major productions spend on a day’s catering, one location, and one camera that can be acquired at any Best Buy can do that to me, it’s a wonderful abject lesson in scaring effectively. 

Video ***1/2

I wasn’t expecting much from this low-budgeted transfer, even with Blu-ray, but I was pleasantly surprised.  There are many dark scenes, and without a good level of detail, much of the effect could be lost.  That doesn’t happen here.  This is equivalent to the best looking home video you’ve ever seen, but with new technologies, that can actually look pretty good.  No, the cinematography doesn’t really ‘pop’, but images are clear, colors are natural, and as mention, you can see quite well in the dark.

Audio ***

The film is driven by dialogue, but with some eerie and potent effects here and there.  I didn’t notice much use of the rear channels, if any, but that’s in keeping with the film’s theme of being a home-shot movie; too much fancy surround signal could have damaged the illusion. 

Features *

The main extra is the alternate ending, and you can watch the whole movie with it or just watch the unused take alone.  The theatrical ending is better.  There are also some previews.

Summary:

Paranormal Activity shows that a good imagination can make the most of limited means and that the simple scares are still the most terrifying.  It wouldn’t surprise me if history shows this film to be the decade’s defining scare flick.  Sleep tight.

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