The new cinéma vérité horror film/mockumentary Paranormal Activity paradoxically feels more like a sequel to The Blair Witch Project than that film’s actual sequel. Like an ideal follow-up, Paranormal Activity takes the same basic premise—amateur filmmaker documents own descent into paranoia and terror at the hands of sinister unseen forces—in a bold new direction. Where Project got a lot of mileage out of the archetypal campfire-story spookiness of the wilderness where its hapless filmmakers got lost, Paranormal Activity derives much of its power from juxtaposing supernatural otherworldliness with the mundanity of the apartment where its action takes place. At best, Paranormal Activity makes the banal and commonplace deeply unsettling. The film’s resemblance to Blair Witch extends to unknown lead actors who are realistic and convincing enough to come off as shrill and unpleasant. After all, people are seldom at their best when confronted by dark powers beyond their comprehension.
Micah Sloat stars as a goofball, technology-happy day trader who picks up a video camera to document a series of ghostly disturbances that have plagued his college-student girlfriend (Katie Featherstone) from an early age. Sloat enters into the project in a spirit of boyish adventure; he wants to capture the whole creepy rollercoaster ride for posterity. Featherstone sees nothing fun about the hell she’s experiencing. The cracks in the couple’s relationship rise to the surface as incidents of unexplainable, seemingly supernatural phenomena begin occurring with increasing frequency.
Without its firm grounding in the ho-hum day-to-day reality of a reasonably well-adjusted twentysomething couple that can handle most of what life has to offer, Paranormal Activity could easily have been nothing more than a tardy Blair Witch knockoff with second-generation J-horror flourishes. A regrettable Ouija-board sequence alone threatens to stop the film cold and hurl it into the annals of camp, but the filmmakers weather occasional missteps while cultivating a tone of creeping dread. The film loses some of its grimy verisimilitude toward the end, but it’s nevertheless a surprisingly effective low-budget shocker with a sensibility as current as the latest viral videos, yet rooted in the suggestive, less-is-more atmospherics of Val Lewton.