The box office success surrounding Paranormal Activity is the feel-good movie story of the year, from a film whose actual contents are anything but. By now you've probably heard some of the details: videogame programmer Oren Peli makes his first movie for $11,000 using two unknown actors, shooting it with no script and no crew over the course of seven days in his San Diego home. It debuts at a horror festival in late '07 and, after playing at the 2008 Slamdance Film Festival, gets an offer from the Dreamworks studio, who want to remake it with an established director and known cast. Peli resists, but ultimately agrees on a $350,000 deal, still hoping to convince the studio to release his version. Further test screenings of the original get such a great reaction from the audience that Dreamworks decides they'll release Peli's version, influenced in part by director Steven Spielberg becoming a huge champion of the movie (Spielberg also suggests shooting a new ending, which Peli does, at an additional cost of $4,000). A viral marketing campaign begins as social networking websites spread positive word of mouth on the movie and it's rolled out in limited release. Word of mouth continues to build and in its first weekend of wide release it kicks Saw VI's ass (which maybe isn't all that difficult an accomplishment with this tired franchise...I mean, six movies in six years, Saw people? With them being pumped out at that rate you know quality control isn't at the top of the movie studio's list). Paranormal Activity has now brought in $97 million in North America and has just started playing in theaters overseas. Add in DVD and television rights and I'd say that's a pretty good return on the investment.
So the buckets of hype and mountains of cash is all well and good - is the movie actually worth watching? That'd be a resounding "yes". The film is presented as a real chronicle of a couple's experiences with a supernatural entity in their home, borrowing a page from The Blair Witch Project's faux documentary style. This is just one of numerous similarities and parallels to Blair Witch, which similarly came out of nowhere to be a big hit with a cast of unknowns in a cheap movie about the supernatural. The two main characters are played by Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, who use their real first names for their characters. They're a couple living in a San Diego home that has recently been beset by a number of unexplained noises and occurrences. Micah, a day trader who works from home, buys a video camera to document the events of trying to suss out what's behind the mysterious disturbances. Katie is a student who is reluctant to participate in Micah's camera experiment, with further tension developing between the couple over his glib attitude to the whole ghost thing, even as things with the pissed off spirit begin to escalate.
The movie does a masterful job at creating a very insular environment with its single camera, spare cast (Mark Fredrichs is particularly good in a low-key portrayal as a skittish psychic) and singular location of the house. Between the claustrophobic feel, frayed nerves from the couple and the creeping dread driven by the scenes captured by the video camera left in the couple's bedroom while they sleep, it's an effectively messy cocktail that puts the viewer on edge.
Paranormal Activity ends up being way scarier than the overrated Blair Witch, and is deserving of its acclaim and box office success. Peli is already filming his next project (Area 51) and hopefully Featherston and Sloat fare better than the cast of Blair Witch, whose careers all appear to have been of the flash-in-the-pan variety.
One more thing...do not watch this movie at night. It's that scary. I made the mistake of watching it alone at 1 in the morning and was sufficiently creeped out enough to have my sleeping habits, which are already pretty messed up, thrown that much more out of whack. I'd call that a ringing endorsement.