As The Blair Witch Project proved, nothing is scarier than nothing. Forget monsters and vampires: Think, instead, of darkness and the crack of a twig nearby. You freeze. You wait...
It's the waiting that makes Paranormal Activity nearly unbearable, even if, like me, you love to be scared. When something onscreen actually happens, it's like any another dumb horror picture. It's very conventional in the light of day. But, of course, we're not seeing things by the light of day.
As in Blair Witch, the perspective is radically limited. There's no omniscient point-of-view. We see everything through the video camera of Micah, a day trader played by Micah Sloat. He comes home to his suburban San Diego house with his new toy after his live-in girlfriend Katie — played by Katie Featherston — reports noises in the night, an alien presence.
Here's the scariest part, director Oren Peli's genius gimmick: Micah sets up the camera to record when they sleep. The view is of their bed and the door and the dark hall leading to the stairway. The image is pale, greenish and white. There's a timer on the screen. You see 1:32 a.m. and 40 seconds ... 41 ... 42 ... 43, and then there's a low rumble. On some nights there might be a faint sound of walking or running. Often Katie and Micah don't wake up — although they watch the footage the next day on a computer. But sometimes there's a thud and Micah grabs the camera and walks into the hall, a little orb of light illuminating a corner, a railing or pointing down the stairs into the darkness.
A psychic played by Mark Fredrichs specializes in ghosts, which he says are ex-humans, whereas this is likely a demon, non-human, evil. He gives them the phone number of a "demonologist." Katie wants to call but Micah doesn't. He's a macho man. He yells things into the darkness like, "Is that all you got?" After a while, the audience decides he's a moron. We think, "Call the demonologist, Katie. Please."
Paranormal Activity is weakest when it's most explicit, which increasingly it is. Even a recognizable shadow or a door swinging shut or bed covers rising up dilute the dread. This is not a great ghost story on the order of The Innocents or the original The Haunting. It's not even as irrationally terrifying as The Blair Witch Project.
But Peli is very shrewd in how he uses the microscopic budget and single setting to make us feel trapped, to exploit our anticipation. Every time he cut to another night and the timer appeared, I said out loud, "Oh, God, here we go" — as well as words I can't say on the radio. Lights click on and off. Katie gets out of bed and stands — just stands — by the side of the bed as the timer runs in fast motion to show she hasn't budged for an hour. Is she awake? Is something holding her? Throughout this movie, something sure as hell is holding us.