I have never, and will never, be able to handle horror movies. I sit through all of the scary sequences with my hands over my eyes, peering through a slit so I can only see a tiny portion of the demonic child/ghost/serial killer, and embarrassing anyone who sits next to me who wants to pretend they're cool.
So I was dreading, absolutely dreading, last night's midnight screening of Paranormal Activity in New York, part of a coordinated series of screenings all over the country that Paramount is using to gauge whether or not it's worth opening and marketing this tiny, tiny film in the country's biggest cities. The studio picked up Paranormal Activity, which cost about $14,000 to make, at Sundance with plans to remake it, but soon realized that the gritty, verite style might be even scarier than a slick Hollywood version. My god were they ever right.
Because New York is a city full of college students who never sleep, the line was already massive by the time I arrived at 10:30, and when I settled into the press section the crowd was restless but happy, cheering constantly and ready to be scared out of their minds. I'd like to think a lot of them came in blind like I did, without watching the trailer or knowing much more than that it's a low-budget horror movie about a couple whose house is haunted by ghosts, or monsters, or something that goes bump in the night.
The trailer gives away way too much, and I'm not going to continue the trend. What you ought to know is that Paranormal Activity is exactly what the title promises, a story about what happens when that weird noise you hear at night isn't just the icemaker or the neighbor's cat. It's so low-budget they didn't even have the money for bad CGI, so most of the scares are exactly the kind you put in your own mind when you're home alone at night-- what was that sound? Did a shadow just pass by the wall? What director Oren Peli manages to accomplish with moving sheets, baby powder tracks and a swinging chandelier is truly remarkable, especially given how much money has been spent in the past on scares that aren't half as effective.
As the young couple, Katie and Micah, grow from being suspicious that something is going on to actually fearing for their lives, the film relies much more heavily on their acting, and it's surprising how well Katie Featherston, the primary target of the haunting, handles the challenge. Micah Sloat, as the skeptical boyfriend-turned-avenger, is more of a comic relief, but his transformation from sarcastic sidekick to terrified warrior is pretty effective as well. Not to ruin anything, but many of the best scares come in moments when the actors play with their physicality, using tiny movements to convey an overwhelming sense of dread.
The deal with Paranormal Activity is that audiences are going to have to work hard to get it-- everyone at the screening last night was encouraged to go here and demand that the film show in New York or whatever area we thought might like it. Paramount is really relying on buzz building before the film comes out, which means the whole thing will only work if every one of those scared-shitless college kids calls their friends in other cities and says "Dude, this is so scary. Get it in your town too."
As a horror weenie and someone who gets legitimately scared even in ridiculous Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, I can't fairly vouch for how scary Paranormal Activity is. But it's a fascinating indie film, an example of how much can be done with so little money, and a modern take on The Blair Witch Project-style of "found footage" horror that still feels completely new. And because I wouldn't dare tell you anything more about it and ruin the surrpise, you have to demand it in your town and see for yourself. And then let me know how well you sleep the night after.