While sitting on the shelf for quite some time now, Paramount Pictures recently figured out a way to properly sell the $11,000 chiller, “Paranormal Activity.” Playing up the film’s haunted house aspect and psychological grip on select members of test audiences, the studio is raring to fashion a fresh “Blair Witch Project” moviegoing event, to build something extraordinary out of an exceedingly modest motion picture. I’m not suggesting “Activity” isn’t effective, but those purchasing a ticket would be well advised to bring expectations down to a dull roar, allowing the movie a fighting chance to frighten.
Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston) are an ordinary couple facing an extraordinary situation. Fearing their house is haunted, the pair purchases a video camera, looking to tape their sleeping hours to capture whatever ghostly entity is in the area. As the days tick by and experts weigh in on their situation, Micah and Katie grow frustrated with the lack of results, only finding fragments of activity on the playback. However, the mysterious noises and swaying doors soon add up, terrifying the couple and putting severe stress on their relationship.
Presented as an assembly of found footage from the local police, “Activity” is the story of a haunting as captured by the haunted. The video is crude hand-held material, depicting the domestic intimacy of the couple between the spurts of terror. They flirt and whine, playing for the camera in a manner that expresses pre-marital comfort, but Micah and Katie are growing increasingly distressed, and the camera monitors their every twitch of fear.
“Activity” is a sensorial experience, not a dramatic one. The performances from the two leads reveal a distinct amateur tone that shatters the illusion of reality, especially Featherston, who’s trying hard to articulate her sensations of alarm, making the performance woefully artificial. Since the entire experience of “Activity” hinges on spending time with the couple, their blasé reading of terror disappoints, and worse, aggravates, making for a glacial 90+ minute sit. For a film already at the lower end of professional polish, the acting makes the whole shebang feel like a community theater rehearsal. I was half-expecting Corky St. Clair to show up as a spirit.
Messing around with Ouija boards, demonology experts, attic investigation, and featuring a plethora of spooky sound effects, “Activity” hits a few highlights of suspense. The stark, homemade quality of the film helps to encourage a creepy atmosphere of the unknown during the sleeping footage, and there are plenty of jolts to keep viewers on edge, but only for a short amount of time. Director Oren Peli doesn’t tighten the noose quickly enough, leaving much of the film a slow burn to nowhere. Events do intensify in the final act, but it’s a long haul to get to the good stuff. Truthfully, “Activity” would’ve made a cracking short film, with all the obvious pauses removed for a more streamlined and effective viewing experience.
Refreshingly, something is actually after Micah and (specifically) Katie, keeping the feature from becoming a shameless tease. It’s a neat concept, but “Paranormal Activity” only contains a few effective sequences, making all the heavy breathing, bickering, and weeping something of a chore to endure.