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When Things Go Bump in the Night.

A less shakicam-ish Blair Witch Project for the Oughts, writer-director Oren Peli’s reasonably unnerving if somewhat longish Paranormal Activity looks like a million bucks — which is impressive, given that it actually only cost 15 large. (And it’s already the most profitable film of all time, pulling in a 434,000% return and counting.) So, if nothing else, HD cameras have come a long way in the past ten years.

And Paranormal Activity is…decently unsettling, I suppose. I give props to any scary flick that goes the J-horror route over Saw-style serial killer torture porn, which is a tired, boring, and lazy subgenre at this point. And I admired the film’s narrative economy and inventiveness — With nothing much happening most of the time, Paranormal Activity has we, the audience, doing almost all of the heavy lifting for it by sitting around, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and scaring ourselves. Paranormal Activity is basically Hitchcock’s ticking-time-bomb (or, to take a more recent application of the principle, Don’s-mistress-sitting-in-the-car on Mad Men) for 90 minutes. And I give it definite points for cleverness.

That being said, I also found the original Blair Witch — lost in the deep dark primordial woods, and unable to escape supernatural forces — to be a more fundamentally frightening experience than this film, which involves hanging around a San Diego split-level, and doing really dumb things to provoke supernatural forces. (For that matter, the similarly-premised Drag Me To Hell earlier this year was a good deal more fun.) And the movie has a bit of a Cloverfield problem, in that the main characters grow increasingly unsympathetic — particularly you-know-who — to the point where I stopped caring after awhile if bad things happened to them. Nonetheless, I could see this being a very creepy rental, under perfect (re: at home by yourself at 3am) conditions.

After a brief thank you to the families involved and the San Diego police department (wink, wink), Paranormal Activity begins with a young day trader named Micah (Micah Sloat) noodling around with his brand-new video camera. After showing us around the house, he goes to pester his live-in girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston), just arriving home, with his new acquisition. It seems Micah is a bit of a tech-geek (and has control issues — more on that later), and he’s procured this top-end video equipment to catch some paranormal activity — namely, the same weird happenings that Katie has been complaining about since the age of 8 — on tape. And that’s about it, really — Katie, Micah, and the video camera, hanging around the house, trying to make sense of the increasingly obvious encroachment of a Malevolent Force from Beyond.

This is all fine and well, although maybe a bit repetitive after awhile. (Katie and Micah do enlist a kindly, New Agey, certifiably So-Cal psychic (Mark Frederichs) at one point, and the funniest moment in the movie is him showing up to make everything seem so much worse.) But the real problem with Activity isn’t the repetition or the lack of events, but the blatantly stupid behavior by our two principals here. Y’see, Micah apparently is a firm believer that his home is his Castle. And, when presented with more and more evidence that what he and Katie are dealing with is out of human control, he tend to double down and become more belligerent about the situation (“Is that all you got, demon?”), to the point where it’s hard to take either of them seriously as characters anymore.

I don’t want to give the game away, but at a certain point an old photograph is found in the attic which has absolutely, positively no business being there. If they hadn’t done so already, this is pretty much the moment when 99.9998% of the population would say, “Uh, ok, we really need to enlist some outside experts on this. Ghostbusters stat!” But, no, Micah gets weird and territorial again, and there’s more interminable wrangling over whether or not to call a demonologist. Wrong answer.

Not coincidentally, this is about the point where I finally checked out of Paranormal Activity for good and started rooting for the Thing from the Nether Realms. As in any horror flick, once folks have gone above and beyond the call of stupid in order to stay in harm’s way, it’s hard to take the supernatural threats to their person all that seriously. Still, aside from making mad bank and injecting a little extra fear into those creaky stairs and hissing pipes late at night, Peli’s Activity does make one thing emphatically clear: Women haunted by demons from an early age should probably try to stay out of relationships with Type-A control freaks, and vice versa.

Omsbudsdog Emeritus

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