Retro Review: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2008){0}

Apparently all it takes to make an effective horror flick are the following components: a guy, a girl, a camera, and a whole bunch of seriously creepy atmosphere. Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity is one of the best haunted house flicks I’ve seen in quite some time — and what makes it even cooler is that the movie was clearly made with a lot more creativity than money. Although it boasts only two characters, one all-encompassing plot thread, and a visual approach clearly inspired by The Blair Witch Project, this seriously creepy little flick is proof positive that you don’t need a lot of flashy effects or expensive gadgets to make for an effective horror tale.

The plot is admirably simple: Micah and Katie are a perfectly normal young couple. Well, except for the fact that Katie has been plagued by intermittent “visitations” for most of her life. As the film opens, Micah has purchased a fancy video camera and some high-end audio equipment — in an effort to capture some “evidence” of recent disturbances. What sort of disturbances? Well, just a bunch of creepy bumps and shuffles in the night … but things start to get a whole lot scarier once Micah starts goading the “visitor” on.

Try this experiment: Grab hold of a nearby video camera, and then (at night) head down into your basement (or up into your attic) while filming with only a strong flashlight. Then go watch your footage in a dark room. See? Just the act of filming dark hallways and empty rooms can make for some slightly creepy material. Now imagine that a small group of smart indie filmmakers have taken that fear of dark hallways, empty rooms, and strange bumps in the night — and turned it into a basic-yet-very effective horror tale that preys on some of the most basic human fears: You’ve just woken up from a sound sleep, and you KNOW something is in the room. You can’t see it, but then … there’s some shuffling thud at the bottom of the stairs! Yikes.

Yeah, Paranormal Activity has that sort of stuff in spades. And, for the most part, the low-key indie works surprisingly well. It’s rare to see the BWP “found footage” approach work so well, but I suppose that makes for at least three horror films that have found a way to make the gimmick work. (The third one being Cloverfield, of course.) The two leads start out as just a little bit unconvincing, but once you get used to the “eavesdropping” approach to the movie, both Micah and Katie become worthy of our attention and empathy. If the film seems just a touch too meaty at 95 minutes, that’s a small complaint in the face of a subtly well-crafted chiller like this one. It’s certainly not the newest story under the sun, but (once again) the horror genre sees a fresh coat of paint applied to an impressively old-fashioned ghost story, resulting in a low-budget winner that every horror geek should try to check out.

And the ending is a real kick in the gut.