To those who don't believe in the supernatural, people like the suburban couple in “Paranormal Activity,” who think their house is haunted, can seem like the most narcissistic humans on the planet. Why would a demon or ghost want to hang around an ordinary San Diego townhouse? The nice weather? Doesn't an interdimensional being have better things to do than fiddle with light fixtures in the middle of the night?
The movie's setup is simple: Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston), plagued by weird sounds and odd occurrences at their home, have decided to film what's happening to them, and we're seeing the edited version. Micah is a day trader and Katie is a student who's seemingly being followed by a demon, according to a psychic (Michael Bayouth) who they've hired to investigate. In the meantime, Micah has obtained, much to Katie's concern, a high-tech digital camera and a Ouija board to try to capture and communicate with whatever is keeping them up nights.
“Paranormal Activity” operates on a premise guaranteed to provoke a reaction, even for people who don't believe in this kind of stuff (free-roaming spirits, that is, not “Blair Witch Project” rip-offs). The linear, fixed point of view from a single camera, the only cuts coming from elapsed time, causes apprehension no matter what the subject. The so-called filmmakers can pick the camera up and put it down, or set it on a tripod; they can move to different places, but the audience is stuck. We can't get away, run or hide, subconsciously realizing that if something bad happens it's probably going to happen to us.
The result works the same as being strapped into a roller coaster. The slow tick up the hill is analogous to when Micah and Katie set up their camera overnight to catch what's going on while they sleep. In a typical scene, we observe the couple sleeping as the tape is sped up over the uneventful hours to, say, 3:02 a.m. Then it reverts to real time. It's kind of a given that this is when something unusual will happen, and it does.
We jump, but we also might wonder. The demon or whatever is roaming the house uninvited is supposed to be malevolent, but it is unusually obliging to the needs of dramatic tension, slowly increasing its presence over the course of the movie in increments guaranteed to keep an audience's attention. Maybe the demon has ambitions in the entertainment industry.
First it needs to step up the performance in “Paranormal Activity.” It has no trouble provoking that hearty visceral reaction (“What's going to jump out at me next?”). It's the cerebral reaction that causes problems (“With all the interesting people in the world to haunt, why pick Katie?”). Traditionally, the latter is where a story helps out, providing background, motivations and explanations for things that don't make any sense. “Paranormal Activity” doesn't bother with any of that.
Sometimes the demon mixes up its intentions, doing something one day that contradicts what it does another. Of course demons aren't necessarily logical, but at one point it grabs Katie by the foot while she's sleeping, drags her of bed, out of the room and down the hallway. Earlier it took control of her mind, got her out of bed on her own and casually walked her downstairs. Was that power a Wednesday-night special? No, the demon does the same thing, arguably the more effective technique with the ladies, again later in the movie. You're not going to make it in show biz with continuity gaffes like that.
“Paranormal Activity” is the brainchild of first-time feature filmmaker Oren Peli, an Israeli immigrant who decided to make his own “Blair Witch,” for about $15,000. Chump change when you see it selling out all over the country. I hope he got a good deal on gross points, but I can't say he deserves my money. “Paranormal Activity” is shamelessly gimmicky. Its frights are jolting and funny, but they build toward a conclusion that's simply lazy and lame.
“Blair Witch” got a bit of a pass for novelty. “Paranormal” is the kind of reality ghost story we've all seen by now. You could get the same thrills at a good sAcance or Ouija board party, without having to feel as abused as Katie. (R) 99 min. HHIII