After a couple of weeks building buzz with special midnight-only screenings in select markets (including Las Vegas), the microbudget horror mockumentary Paranormal Activity opens in regular release hyped as the scariest movie ever made, which, let’s get it straight right now, it’s not. But if you’ve avoided the marketing campaign, and head into the movie not knowing much other than that it’s a ghost story, you’ll find an effectively different take on the standard haunted-house narrative, with a decent creep factor and some surprisingly rich subtext.
Activity takes the Blair Witch Project/Cloverfield approach by setting itself up as found footage shot by its main characters: Twenty-somethings Micah (Sloat) and Katie (Featherston) live in a prefab house in San Diego, where a mysterious being of some sort has been causing minor mayhem (moving objects, turning lights on and off, making noises). So Micah buys a video camera to document the phenomena.
That’s all there is; the movie never leaves the house, and barely offers any glimpses of other characters. It’s as much a slow-burn domestic drama between the insecure Katie and the arrogant, inconsiderate Micah as it is a ghost story, and writer-director Oren Peli does a good job of using his bare-bones haunting elements (doors slamming, objects breaking) as jumping-off points to examine ingrained gender roles and the ways that relationships change when people decide to live together.
It’s that subtext that makes the movie more than a series of thumps and shocks, although it does have its share of scares. Whether it will keep you up at night probably depends on how inclined you are to jump at strange noises in your house. Despite its unconventional approach, Activity is at heart another haunted-house movie, albeit one that takes the time to think about the true nature of haunting.