Is Paranormal Activity the scariest movie ever made? Is it? I keep hearing things! A lot of people seem to think this movie’s the real deal, and it’s created so much nationwide hype and demand that it’s become a genuine phenomenon and the first movie to ever have its release decided by audiences who really, really want to see it.
And the audiences did indeed speak quite loudly. Last week, Paranormal Activity hit the 1,000,000 demands that it needed to see its very own nationwide theatrical release, and will be expanding nice and wide starting Friday, October 16. Not only that, last weekend, the film managed to climb up to the number 4 spot at the box office, playing on only a mere 160 screens. I had the honor and privilege of being inside one of those 160 packed-house movie theaters last weekend, for a showing of the film, to see if there was any justification to the massive hype.
And so, I return to my initial question: Is Paranormal Activity the scariest movie ever made? Is it? Is it??
Well, it’s subjective, really, but I’m sure you’ll be pleased to hear that it is, in fact, a skillfully scary little flick—and one that requires being seen in a movie theater. I can’t stress this enough. If you decide to wait for DVD on this one, and watch it on some regular-sized TV screen with Sunday afternoon daylight pouring in through your window and birds chirping outside, then you might as well not watch it at all. There’s simply no point.
For anyone who hasn’t been brushed by the flurry of hype around this movie, Paranormal Activity is a Blair Witch-style documentation of a young couple, Katie and Micah, who decide to try and investigate a possible ghost that has been following Katie since she was young. They set up a camera in their bedroom, turn on the night-vision, and go to sleep to try and capture any strange occurrences that might happen in the night.
And as this is a horror movie that is being touted as the scariest thing since the invention of fear, then I’m clearly not spoiling anything by telling you that their suspicions are not without merit. And whatever it is that is inhabiting their home with them, filming it is just making it angrier.
And cue the scary shit.
When I saw the trailer and when I sat down in the theater to watch the movie, I was entirely certain that this movie would not—could not—scare me. I essentially knew everything that was going to happen—and happen it all did. It’s a reasonably predictable film. Doors open, things that shouldn’t move on their own do anyway, and there’s lots of bumps in the night. Everything that you think might happen in a movie with a title as up-front as Paranormal Activity happens. And yet it’s still unbelievably scary! Why the hell is that??
Director Oren Peli turns this fact—that we, the horror movie audience, pretty much know what’s going to be happening—and turns it into one of the film’s greatest assets. Every scare in the movie is elongated to grueling lengths as we sit in aching suspense, practically begging for the bad shit to just happen already.
To boot, he makes much better use out of the limited coverage of the camcorder horror movie than The Blair Witch Project ever did. Peli knows that the audience’s imagination is about a hundred times scarier than anything he could actually show—or even tell—us. For much of the film’s horrifying nighttime sequences, the camera sits immobile in the bedroom as the terror occurs elsewhere in the house, leaving us to only hear and guess at what might be going on.
And it’s in this aspect where Paranormal Activity finds its true stroke of genius. The most brilliant element of the inner-workings of this film—what instantly alerted me out of my “this won’t scare me” attitude—is the film’s sound design. The constant low drone of the house, eerily punctuated by bumps and crashes and footsteps, is monstrously creepy, and it can get pretty damn exhausting.
It’s a terrific testament to how unbelievably effective a film’s sound can be, especially since the movie has no over-the-top music cues to let you know when you’re supposed to be scared. You’ll know damn well all by yourself just when to be scared. This film is wholly worthy of Oscar nominations for sound editing and mixing, and if the hype keeps blowing up, it may likely get them.
Also noteworthy—because no one else seems to be giving the deserved credit—are the performances of the two leads. I’ve heard multiple critics going after the performances in this movie, and it seems such an easy target for a film operating on a budget as low as this (a mere $11,000). You don’t tend expect much out of amateur actors, but the two leads of this film are both really, really good and convincing. Unlike Blair Witch, whose characters were loathsome, bitchy student filmmakers, the characters in Paranormal Activity are actual characters—real people, likable people. They do some very stupid things, but they are all stupid things that real people would actually do.
So yes, friends, Paranormal Activity is the real deal. It’s a big, fun, and insanely scary little film that should be seen in a theater and as soon as possible. If for no other reason, I would suggest seeing it before legions of overzealous fans ruin it for everyone. (I would cite Napoleon Dynamite, but I never liked that movie in the first place.) Just see it, and while you’re at it go out and buy Drag Me to Hell on DVD, and be thankful that there are still a few people out there making genuinely worthwhile horror movies. And then cry next week when Saw VI comes out and ruins the track record…of two.