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New Review: Paranormal Activity

October 15, 2009


In 2009, it is hard to be scared by a horror film. The gross-out effect has taken over the classic ghost story. But then came “Paranormal Activity,” the quiet indie thriller that stormed theaters last weekend.

Ten years after the “Blair Witch Project” phenomenon, Oren Peli is once again wowing audiences with a micro-budget thriller.

At a special screening of the film at Indie Memphis, filmmaker Craig Brewer introduced the film warning the audience that they will not want to go home alone. Brewer hit the nail on the head. While the film slowly builds tension until you are on the edge of your seat waiting, the real terror exists outside of the theater, when going home afterwards. Hearing a strange noise, seeing your keys somewhere that you didn’t realize you set them, or trying to go to sleep – you will be haunted by the film.

Created by San Diego filmmaker Peli in 2006 for $15,000, “Paranormal Activity” had been receiving some buzz before being purchased by Paramount Vantage, who then shelved the film to consider as a remake. But then the film caught the eye of Steven Spielberg who worked through his studio Dreamworks with Peli to enhance the sound (rumor has it the remixing cost four times of the entire film) and to change the ending for a mightier punch. Critic Elvis Mitchell was at the Indie Memphis screening this weekend and said the changes were worth it as the sound is much improved since the Slamdance version that he saw.

Paramount (Vantage is long gone, but the main studio) decided to remount the film and begin midnight theatrical screenings in September but due to some good buzz decided to expand the release while working on one of the most creative marketing campaigns to date. The film surpassed box office estimates during its theatrical release this weekend due in part to the guerilla market campaign that lets people demand screenings in their areas on Eventful and quite significant buzz on the social networks. Although Paramount had already planned a larger roll out for this Friday, the effect got people talking and for people who live in small towns like our own and never get much of a chance to see limited release films, the idea of demanding studios bring a theater to you was genius.

Brandon Gray of reports that the film took in over $7.9 million for a $9.1 million total since it began screening on Sept. 25. Last weekend the film expanded to 160 sites and broke the record for highest-grossing weekend for a movie playing less than 200 theaters. The film exceeded “Platoon” which held the record for years.

The premise is simple. A young couple attempts to solve the mysterious noises they have heard in their home by trying to capture the action on camera. It’s best to not provide too much detail on the plot in order to help keep the effectiveness of the slow-burning suspense and not have the ending spoiled, but don’t go into the film expecting constant scares. Peli follows a documentary style and lets us get to know the couple before anything too frightening ever occurs. The fright itself is not a Haunted House effect of ghosts screaming and jumping out at you, but more a traditional paranormal haunting. Ok, there are a few screams.

Having grown up in San Diego where hauntings are often investigated anyway due to the famously haunted Whaley House, the effect for me was slightly even more chilling. What is always scariest in horror film is when we are made to believe just how easily it could happen to anyone. Most people will not wake up in a strange room and be forced to cut off their own leg as some sort of maniacal game or be part of a sorority that accidentally kills one of their own, but we have all heard a strange creaking noise in our house before that made us wonder if someone was there. We’ve all had those moments where a slight chill crosses our neck and we shiver. “Paranormal Activity” plays on those little things that when packaged together, make for one scary film.

What is effective about the movie is the documentary style, but this is no “Blair Witch Project” (that’s a good thing). Although Blair Witch had a more successful opening, the film quickly fell flat in ticket sales after two weeks. “Paranormal Activity” appears to be bucking the trend and building momentum but the trend has not yet been proven until this weekend.

Although the comparison is natural, especially since Peli was inspiredby Blair Witch, Peli’s film is much more stable in the camera work and the “shaky” effect is minimal. You won’t walk out of this one feeling nauseated by camera work. But the film’s success so far proves one thing: there is always room for a good indie ghost tale for audiences.

In Memphis at 1:30 a.m. on Friday night in an overly packed house, the audience sat in stunned silence as the credits ended. The lights didn’t go up. At first the group collectively held their breath. Then everyone began to squirm in their seats. Finally, Brewer said “good night everyone” and the house emptied with everyone abuzz about what they had just seen. While the film is definitely fun to screen with an audience in a dark theater, I believe it will be just as effective when viewing at home, that is if it is doesn’t push the film from scary to traumatic.

Malco will be exhibiting the films beginning tomorrow in Tupelo, but not in Oxford. A more expanded release is expected for Oct. 23 so we may be on the list for that one. Go to to track additional screenings.

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