First time director Oren Peli has crafted a truly worthwhile horror movie with Paranormal Activity. It's a great horror movie because it has nothing to do with what most of today's horror movies do. It has no gore, only one real jump scare (and a tremendous one at that), no ingenious killer who sets traps far too complicated to actually work, etc. It's a ghost story... sort of. It concerns itself with Katie and Micah, a couple who're experiencing a sort of haunting. A haunting of what, they're not immediately sure. Katie has experienced such things occasionally since she was a young girl, but at many different locations. So they know it's not a haunted house. They're told by a kind psychic that Katie isn't being followed by a ghost, but by a demon, and he recommends they call in a demonologist, since he himself won't be able to help (he only deals with ghosts). Stranger and stranger things begin happening, as Katie, and eventually Micah, begin feeling a desperate helplessness about the experiences.
The thing that works so well about the movie is that it has no interest in showing off its special effects to show how grossly shocking a killing is. This is certainly not the geek show that modern horror has become. On a reported budget of only $15,000, it has almost no effects to speak of anyway. What it does have are chills, unsettling imagery, and tension galore. Peli has clearly learned the age old lesson that it is much more effective to make people anticipate something happening than actually show it happening. We watch the screen with eyes focused, trying to see something appear. We watch the hallway, the light on the door, the couple sleeping benignly on the bed. Sometimes, things that go bump in the night, just go bump in the night, which ratchets up the tension as we await the inevitable escalation of events.
Paranormal Activity is shot like a home movie. The storytelling technique used is that of Micah (Micah Sloat) filming everything he can after buying an expensive video camera that he hopes to use to capture footage of the demonic manifestations. Katie (Katie Featherston), the one who's actually haunted, isn't so keen on the idea, as she gets no adrenaline rush, nor any perverse pleasure from the torment. Often we see Katie frustrated with Micah's insistence on the camera, while Micah thinks it's their once in a lifetime opportunity to capture evidence of something extraordinary. Although the movie isn't without its humor, as Micah goes back to grab the camera when Katie yells in the other room (we hear her asking "Did you go back to get the camera?" as he looks down at a spider occupying their bathroom floor). As well as Micah always trying to "get extra curricular" with the camera in the bedroom.
When things start going more than just "bump" in the night, the movie works because we've had these characters and this situation so pumped full of suspense, without a payoff. It's really superb filmmaking, and honestly the use of sound is the best I've seen (heard?) in a movie this year. The sound design takes the movie to such a higher level of impressiveness than it would've been at otherwise. The movie overall is the best fright movie I've seen in a long time. One that is actually frightening because it's trying to give us the creeps, not just make us jump, or gross us out with more elaborate killings than the last movie. There's a moment near the end that I thought would've been a perfect ending, and when the movie kept going I was a bit disappointed, thinking it was going to ruin what had been so great. I'm glad it kept going, as the ending it did have was just as wonderful. Especially for those, like myself, that have been turned off by horror movies for a long time, I can't recommend this one enough. Because it's not a "horror movie", it's a "scary movie", if you get my meaning.