‘Paranormal Activity’: Fright on the Cheap

October 20, 2009

Capitalizing on today’s fascination with cable television’s “paranormal” reality shows, Paranormal Activity demonstrates how simple it is to scare the excitable, “Did you hear that?!” crowd. It also reveals how easy it is to get those credulous folk to pay to be scared. The movie brought in $7.9 million over a weekend in only 160 theaters. (See David Germain, AP, “Spooky Success,” Buffalo News , Gusto section, October 16, 2009.)

Revealingly, that is from a film boastfully shot on a shoestring. Acquired by distributor Paramount Pictures at a film festival, Paranormal Activity reportedly cost a mere $15,000.

And it looks like it. Not counting of course the movie’s central, shadowy entity, it has just four characters: a demon-haunted Katie, her live-in techie boyfriend Micah, Katie’s girlfriend, and a parapsychologist whose “expertise” and psychic vibes tell him to get the hell out. Set in a modern nondescript home, the events are seen entirely through Micah’s video camera—locked on a tripod while the couple slept, otherwise hand held. I wondered if the actual shooting was done by The Blair Witch Project ’s cameraman’s kid brother.

The movie creates all the interest of an episode of Ghost Hunters—that is, until its shocker ending. Everything’s relative: In a typical horror flick such an event would occur so often as to be passé, but in Paranormal Activity this follows such (yawn) incidents as keys discovered lying on the floor, spooky sounds, and a door closing.

Paramount should be thanked (if that’s the right word) for reportedly trimming the movie and punching up the ending. Then it shrewdly allowed the “online community” to help with its marketing. But what was Paramount truly offering? Well, there, they really cut corners.