Paranormal Activity, writer/director Oren Peli’s single-set calling card of a ghost story is clever, occasionally unbearably tense, and, above all, utterly relentless—a Blair Witch Project that doesn’t skimp on the money shots. Much like that previous film, the combination of jittery handheld cameras, no-profile actors, and lack of dudes in rubber suits will no doubt turn off a significant portion of the audience in the mood for something overt. For those in a more suggestible frame of mind, however, Peli’s method of imbuing everyday objects—a slightly ajar door, a swinging chandelier, a (gulp) strangely rumpled bedsheet—with an atmosphere of ball-crawling dread is really something to see. It doesn’t let up.
The premise is ingenious in a way that’s maybe only possible on a microbudget: After a young woman begins to complain about hearing strange (and, more ominously, strangely familiar) sounds after dark, her type-A tech-head boyfriend hooks up a camera in their bedroom to document any late-night shenanigans. Heh heh heh, as the Cryptkeeper used to say.
There are problems, to be sure: The male character is presented as such an unlikable douche from the beginning that it’s hard to garner much sympathy once things start to unravel, while the film’s mounting reliance on silence-then-BOOM set pieces can sometimes seem like a bunch of cheap jolt YouTube videos spliced together. But, man, when it works, it works, to a degree that I’m slightly shamefaced to admit during the daylight hours. Backlash against advertising proclamations of The! Scariest! Movie! Ever! is probably already primed, but all I know is that every damn time that camera goes back to the time-coded bedroom and waits for something to happen, it’s awfully easy to believe the hype.