Synopsis: A woman and her boyfriend are terrorized by a demonic door-slamming spirit. Shot in 'Blair Witch' style on a shoestring budget.
This is a great movie for Halloween, and an especially great movie for women who dabble in the occult and their skeptical significant others. If you've ever rolled your eyes when your girlfriend went on and on about how Venus is in retrograde to your rising sign, etc., or winced at every episode of 'Ghost Hunters' ("Dude, run!") then you'll get a kick out of this movie.
The plot is straightforward: Micah (the boyfriend) and his live-in girlfriend Katie are having difficulty sleeping. Katie explains that ever since she was a little girl she was tormented by a 'presence' that stood at the foot of her bed. She goes on to say that the house she grew up in actually burned to the ground (no one was hurt) and ominously notes that they never determined the cause of the fire.
Then the movie gets funny. Micah decides to film the entire experience (as techy guys are wont to do) and he films their exchanges, going so far as to set up the camera in their bedroom to film them while they sleep. Katie takes the entire situation very seriously, as Micah walks around the house asking the demon to 'show itself' and generally making snide comments that are often hysterical.
The humor in Paranormal Activity is crucial to the film's effectiveness because it feels very real. This is how women react to lamps suddenly turning on by themselves. They freak out -- while the men in their lives check the light fixture for bad wiring. It's all very mundane and funny and charming, even -- until it isn't.
Some of the humor in the film was unintentional, but entertaining anyway. For example, when the couple enlists the aid of a medium early on in the movie, Micah is very skeptical, treating the aging, white-haired man with open disdain. The medium points out that the presence may not be a ghost (the spirit of a deceased person) but might be a demonic force, which is far worse, and (conveniently) not his area of expertise. Later, when Micah is more convinced that there could be a very real problem ("Take that non-believing skeptics!") they persuade the mystic to return.
Mystic: (looks around the house) "Yeah, I can feel it. I can't stay here."
Micah: "Wait, um..."
Katie: "We need help!"
Mystic: "This is not something I can do." (senses again) "I... wow... I cannot stay here."
Micah: "Isn't there anything you can do-"
Mystic: "It's definitely a demonic entity. I can't stay."
He then leaves them both. Maybe the director expected this moment to be dreadful, but it came across as more funny than scary.
(hums the Ghostbusters theme) "Who ya gonna call!?..... someone else, thanks."
Devoid of any gore or violence, the film breaks a lot of horror movie conventions. The stars are nobodies (maybe not anymore), the budget isn't huge, it all takes place in one house, the special effects are almost non-existent, and the plot is very, very simple, with no twists or turns at all. The ending may be unexpected, but generally the plot is linear.
The pacing is perfect, and slowly ramps up the tension. The nighttime sleeping moments are particularly scary because they get progressively worse. You can see the time code for the video, which speeds up when nothing happens, and then slows down when something spooky happens, which actually adds some tension. You see the hours racing by as the time speeds along, and then it slows you (if you're engaged with the film) you wait to see what's about to happen.
The same scene is shown over and over again: the sleeping couple, with the door to the hallway open, showing a dimly lit hallway, and after a while it starts to get creepy and threatening in a weird way. This is a movie that works best with the viewer's imagination, the way the shark in 'Jaws' was more horrible for not seeing it -- you had to imagine the monster lurking beneath the surface.
I did not find the film terrifying (there are reports that people actually left the theater they were so scared). There are some 'jump' moments that you half-expect to happen, but still catch you anyway, but this is a fun movie that will keep the attention of most movie-goers. For more sensitive occultish types (ok, women) this could be completely terrifying nightmare-fuel of the highest order. If you know someone (ok, a woman) who plays around with tarot cards, astrology, Wicca, etc. then take her to this film and she'll be clinging to you in no time.