While you lay sleeping, things in your house move. You're certain they were somewhere else the day before.

As you lay in uncomfortable half-sleep, voices sound in your hallway. Footsteps fall just beyond the bedroom door. When you check the hall, no one is there.

You finally return to fitful slumber. Someone stands over you. Staring. For hours.

You catch this all on camera. The distant movement. The noises. The person standing, apparently not in a right mind.

Paranormal Activity has been creeping around in variant forms since 2007, and recently received its big-screen release. Some consider it the scariest movie of all time. As I write this is has just become the most profitable one, thanks to its very small budget and terrific gross. I found that it fell short of the hype, but it does provide a moderately disturbing experience and raises some uncomfortable thoughts about how well we know the people and places closest to us.

The film combines elements that have appeared in many other horror films and stories. Paranormal Activity reasonably might be pitched as Poltergeist meets The Blair Witch Project. It takes its plot from hundreds of supposed supernatural occurrences in which Demonic Forces from Beyond dedicate their vast powers to producing really weenie and easily-faked phenomena that upset the lives of ordinary people for no discernible reason. (Of course, we see the activity happening here, so we know it's not faked. Except that it's a movie, and so it is).

The ordinary people, in this case, form a hip young couple, who begin recording the strange phenomena occurring in their house. Their recordings, you see, have been edited into Paranormal Activity. Our young protagonists see no point in actually leaving the house, even after the camera confirms their suspicions in the most disturbing ways. The woman admits that a demonic force has stalked her for years, at all of her residences, since her childhood home, which burned down. She knows if she leaves it will find her again. She fears, however, that her partner's attempts to document the events have made things worse.

Paranormal Activity plays sinisterly off most familiar childhood fears, the dark and unknown things that lurk in the world we inhabit and in the people we think we know. If the film's familiar setting plays a key role in bringing the supernatural terror home, the movie also features moments of plausible chills. People close to us may hide things within that we do not suspect, and which do not bode well for us. Some people demonstrate unexplained or unexpected shifts of personality and behavior.

Micah finds a photograph in the attic. Young Kate stands before her childhood home, the one that burned down.

The film balances the creepiness with some entertaining interaction, as this most ordinary-seeming of couples deal with the impossible. Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (Blair Witch-like, the characters have the names of the actors) give strong, natural performances. Still, their behavior raises some serious questions. Shouldn't these people be more disturbed by what they observe? How do they fall asleep so easily? And does Micah ever work at his job as a day trader? The actors perform well, but the characters' problematic psychology occasionally took me out of the film.

This isn't the only flaw. As in The Exorcist, I'll accept the problematic motives of demonic forces for the sake of the story, which develops nicely. That story runs a little longer, however, than I felt the premise could sustain.

Nevertheless, Paranormal Activity will please those who want horror, not violence and gore. As a bonus, audience members who grew nauseous during Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project will be relieved to hear that this film features far less shaky-cam. Someone finally realized that, just because a character captures your movie on camcorder, that character doesn't have to suffer from epilepsy or palsy.

Like Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity shows that good filmmaking isn't about overblown budgets and overpaid, physically-enhanced celebrities, and good horror isn't about boundary-shredding gore and torture. I appreciate it for that reason alone, and recommend it to fans of horror-- though with less enthusiasm than many other reviewers.

Written and directed by Oren Peli


Katie Featherston as Katie
Micah Sloat as Micah
Mark Fredrichs as the Psychic
Amber Armstrong as Amber

The review continues, with a discussion of the conclusion. Expect significant spoilers.

Spoilers follow.

Spoilers. Serious spoilers. As in, I describe the ending of the movie.

Paranormal Activity has two alternate endings, which have been used in festivals and will doubtless be available on DVD and Blu-ray. I cannot help but think that either would have made a better ending than the one we saw.

All of the endings involve a final kerfuffle in the hall. Both Micah and Katie leave the bedroom. The camera only records the sound.

In the film that received widespread release, something hurls Micah back into the room, where he crashes against the camera and dies. We hear demonic footsteps and Katie walks into the room, clearly possessed by something. She examines the body and smiles a sinister smile. A subtitle informs us that her current whereabouts remain unknown. It's cheesy, but Micah's death has an impact, and the conclusion recalls nicely traditional ghost stories told 'round the campfire.

During its earlier festival run, Katie returns alone, collapses to the floor, and rocks for days. The camera's massive digital memory records everything up to the arrival of the police. She regains some kind of consciousness, but she's holding a knife and she's covered in blood. The officers shoot her.

A third ending has Katie return alone. In an echo of an early line from the film, she slits her throat for the camera.

As with all horror films that feature a supernatural element, our fear increases the more we accept the possibility of such things existing. The ending used presents us with the demon in a very obvious way. Once the lights go up, I can easily dismiss it as a work of fiction.

The other versions feature just as much paranormal activity, but they end with someone doing horrible things that people really can do. That carries far more chilling implications.

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