“Paranormal Activity”: Dispiriting Bunk Goes Clunk in the Night – 1 & ½ popcorns

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By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

The only really frightening thing about first time writer-director Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” is that Americans are paying good money to see it. Go figure. In the last couple of years our McMansions have devalued by about one fifth, unemployment is near ten percent, many state treasuries are depleted, and still folks haven’t had enough horror.

What economists might deduce from this box office phenomenon is that movie tastes diminish in direct proportion to the nation’s financial health. Certainly it would be paranoid to suggest that Paramount Pictures has at last taken command of our brains, leaving only a few incredulous film critics to think they’ve gone completely mad.

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In any case, replicating the cachet “The Blair Witch Project” so successfully achieved in 1999, “Paranormal Activity” seeks the scaredy cat in you via its made-on-a-shoestring, mockumentary style. Mr. Peli would have you believe that virtual unknowns Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston are not actors, but actual victims of a fiercely perilous haunting.

Hence, when things in their nondescriptly decorated, San Diego home start going bump in the night, it is hoped we will take absolute leave of our senses and get a good, heart-pumping scare. Baloney! Though, I must admit, coming home at night after imbibing this chilling pap I did look behind me more often than usual.

Indeed, there seemed to be an eerie stillness in the dark street as I shuffled through the crackling fall leaves. And of course it was only my imagination as a slight breeze seemed to whisper, ‘Get home, disbeliever, get home.’ Thus it was understandable that when, from behind a bush a neighbor uttered “Winter coming early this year,” I jumped.

But then it might have been a reflexive reaction…all that pent up anxiety from making sure not to be jolted by whatever fiendish sleight of hand filmmaker Peli threw my way: ‘We’ll see how scary this guy is.’ But he fails. He is no Poe. No beating heart speaks from beyond. No window shade rolls up noisily. No cat startlingly alights upon a sill.

That would get me. But nothing Peli is able to fashion finds those recesses that store the locked up terrors of childhood. Where I’m writing this review in my basement retreat, that’s just the boiler turning on and off at the darkened far end. No harm done if I turn around every so often to make sure it’s not the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954).

Granted, Mr. Peli wreaks to a skillful hilt the uncertainty that can cause fear. In what little plot “Paranormal Activity” professes, Katie Featherston’s slightly Rubenesque Katie has informed her roomie and lover that she’s been the victim of some presence ever since youth. She assures that the house is not haunted per se, that whatever “It” is follows her.

Disbelieving as he may be, Micah hauls out the camera to prove or disprove it. Stuff starts to happen. Not right away, mind you. Director Peli knows not to give away the store or show all his pitches in the first few innings. The camera and we become the fourth wall, ostensibly seeing the goings-on before Katie and Micah run the video.

For starters, it’s just a blanket being ruffled as they sleep. Maybe it’s only the wind…or something. As time passes, many of the coincidental circumstances are slowly ruled out and our intrepid duo becomes increasingly less playful about their video experiment. It becomes a funk. Katie begins to worry that trying to film the invading spirit will anger it.

They invite a psychic, portrayed by Mark Fredrichs, to their beleaguered digs. Also a virtual unknown (and rightfully so if this performance is any indication), the seer quickly surmises that the invader is decidedly demonic. Too bad his colleague who deals in devils of this sort is abroad. Issuing a quick “Sorry, see ya,” he turns tail and skedaddles.

Now alone in their plight, with not even a screwball mystic to hold their hand, the pair begins to bicker. Still, while their perceptions bode quite gloomy, nothing really terrible has happened…just yet. And, though this scoffer was completely disappointed in what then leads to a poor payoff, in respect for those who would be terrified I divulge no more.

As propagated on the Internet, the film we see was “found” with no details attached. Poppycock! OK, it heightens your alertness to creepy possibilities. Like the water faucet that just turned itself on in my basement bathroom. Surely I just forgot to shut it. If not, let’s hope this review finds its way to you, safely out of reach of “Paranormal Activity.”

“Paranormal Activity,” rated R, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Oren Peli and stars Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat and Mark Fredrichs. Running time: 86 minutes


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