It's October, so let's stay on the scary-movie theme and talk about another horror flick coming out this month: Paranormal Activity.
Shot entirely with hand-held camera (in the style of recent flicks like Cloverfield and [REC]), it's the story of a San Diego couple who have been experiencing some strange occurrences in their home: doors open and shut, water turns on by itself, and strange whispering and creaking can be heard at night. The man buys an elaborate video rig to capture the goings-on, never considering that such a move might actually antagonize whatever it is that's going 'bump' in the night.
It's a decent-enough little flick, and genuinely scary in some parts. Is it "the scariest movie of the decade" or even "of all time" as some critics are reporting? Eh...probably not. Its effectiveness is bolstered by the fact that everyone involved is essentially making what is their first movie (Texan Katie Featherston, who plays...Katie...was previously in the straight-to-DVD Mutation) and the $14,000 budget, which means they really have to wring a lot of anxiety out of baby powder and a swinging chandelier.
But comparisons to the giants of the genre are probably a little premature. Paranormal Activity has a great hype machine behind it (courtesy of Paramount, who picked up the distribution rights at Sundance), including a "demand ticker," where you can add your email address to the thousands who are trying to earn the film a wide release.
But the movies frequently cited as the most frightening of all time, like The Exorcist, Don't Look Now, or Alien, all have something more: a staying power. The dread lingers well after you leave the theater because it strikes a deeper chord than just making you jump when the drowned guy pops out of the water and grabs the girl in the canoe (spoiler for Friday the 13th). Paranormal Activity has some serious scares, and is better than it has any right to be, but you won't lose any sleep over it.
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One movie that consistently ranks highly on the "all-time" lists is also the one Paranormal Activity is drawing the most comparisons to, thanks to its internet popularity and Vomit-Cam indie-horror sensibilities, and that's 1999's The Blair Witch Project.
Blair Witch was the first movie to effectively use the web to spread word of mouth, and in the heady days before ubiquitous viral marketing and elaborate studio web pages the "missing filmmakers" strategy was incredibly effective. It was scary as hell not just because of the inescapability of the situation (in spite of the claims that it wouldn't do any good, you can't help but wonder why the couple in PA don't at least try to go stay in a hotel), but because the filmmakers did such a thorough job convincing us this was a true story. At the advance screening I attended, fully one-third of the people I talked to believed we were actually watching video recovered from the Burkittsville woods.
Coming on board early is crucial with movies like this, since time and exposure inevitably take some of the mystery out of the proceedings. This was true for Blair Witch (though some people, incredibly, still believe it's a true story) and is doubly true for Paranormal Activity. Unfortunately for writer/director Oren Peli, the circumstances that helped TBWP become the highest-grossing indie movie of all time (until My Big Fat Greek Wedding...how depressing) were a perfect storm of tech, marketing, and production.
He hasn't made a bad movie, quite the opposite, but it's almost impossible to catch that kind of lightning in a Handycam again.