By Eugene Novikov, reprinted from the Telluride Film Festival, 9/11/09
Once the novelty of the first-person, subjective-camera horror flicks (Blair Witch, Cloverfield, Quarantine, Diary of the Dead, etc,) wore off for me, I started having logistical issues with the genre. After a while, you can't help but start paying attention to the inherent implausibility of the characters as persistent, skilled camerapeople who keep rolling when any reasonable person would have ditched the damn camcorder long ago. That may seem insanely picky, but it's what happens when the same flawed device is foisted on me time and again.
I had some of the same objections to Paranormal Activity, which screened at Telluride in advance of a planned release by Paramount, and nearly two years after it first premiered at Screamfest in Los Angeles. But the movie is so skillful in every other way -- and so much fun -- that I essentially told myself to shut the hell up. Oren Peli's feature debut, the story of a woman haunted by a relentless and malevolent demon, is a terrific companion piece to this year's Drag Me to Hell, with Sam Raimi's old-fashioned horror chops replaced by the masterful execution of a conceptual gimmick.
The idea here is that Micah (Micah Sloat) has purchased a fancy camera to better document what his girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston, fantastic) claims are paranormal goings-on: weird noises in the night, waking up to things out of place, stuff like that. So Micah figures that if he leaves the camera running in their bedroom through the night -- hooked up to a laptop to avoid a tape running out -- he should be able to catch whatever it is that's happening, and maybe appease Katie in the process. The camera often rolls during the day too, as Micah and Katie, with the help (or more accurately non-help) of a hilariously terrified psychic, struggle with the effects of the increasingly intense haunting. But the film's set pieces are the largely silent nighttime sequences, as the stationary camera captures some clever, subtle, scary things.
I compare Paranormal Activity to Drag Me to Hell not just because they tackle similar subject matter, but because both are so gleefully entertaining. These are good-natured horror flicks; movies to love. They will get under your skin, and they're dark enough for anyone, but they have no interest in intimidating you or pushing the envelope. Paranormal Activity will please horror fans and is an even better date movie; it's funny, too.