- The Washington Times - Friday, October 2, 2009

A decade ago, a trio of filmmakers made an ultra low-budget horror film with no special effects, a clever marketing campaign and a prayer. “The Blair Witch Project” ended up an international phenomenon, grossing $140 million and frightening a generation of moviegoers.

“Paranormal Activity” is the intellectual successor to that movie: Made for just $15,000 and featuring a similar, faux-documentary/cinema verite style purporting to be found footage from a horrific crime, “Paranormal Activity” looks to have much the same effect on audiences as its predecessor did.

This is a terrifying picture, one that capitalizes on the unseen horrors that litter our nightmares once the lights go out. Katie (Katie Featherston) has been the object of obsession by a dark spiritual force her entire life; it has followed her from residence to residence, attracted to her for reasons that go unexplained.

This is bad news for Micah (Micah Sloat), the boyfriend with whom she has just moved in. When odd things start happening around Katie again, Micah decides to buy a video camera and film the occurrences in the hopes of capturing something on tape — or debunking her fears.

Needless to say, there’s very little debunking involved.

The paranormal activity, as it were, starts slowly: doors moving of their own, things going bump in the night, lights flickering. They ratchet up as Micah grows more aggravated and starts mocking the demon. Bringing a Ouija Board into the equation to try and contact the spirit doesn’t make things any better.

That’s the plot. Nothing too special, just the mapping of one couple’s slow breakdown as forces they can neither comprehend nor control bring their full force down on their heads.

“Paranormal Activity” wouldn’t work without the performances by Ms. Featherston and Mr. Sloat; they make a believable couple, whose loving relationship turns to argumentative bickering before devolving into constant sniping and backbiting.

This believability persists despite Micah belonging to that oh-so-particular genus of “annoying horror movie characters who do everything wrong and can only be described as hopelessly stupid.” Dude: You don’t. Taunt. Demons.

Almost as interesting as the movie is the marketing strategy that Paramount studios has employed. Rather than go with an all-out media blitz, blanketing airwaves with advertisements telling people how scary the picture is, they put together a quick trailer showing audience reactions to the film and sent it out to the movie blogs.

Buzz built up and Paramount realized it had something to work with here, something that didn’t need to go straight-to-DVD as company executives had planned. So they left it up to audiences to decide: Viewers could go to the Web site and “demand” the movie be shown in their town, and the cities with the highest appeal would get limited engagements — the screenings of which would only take place once a day at midnight.

Washington, D.C., was one such town, and if last night’s screening was any indication Paramount made a wise choice. There’s no doubt that this film made its money back with last night’s midnight screenings alone: The D.C. theater probably pulled in a fifth of the $15,000 budget all on its lonesome.

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