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Published: Monday, 10/19/2009

Movie review: Paranormal Activity ***1/2


San Diego, Calif., 2006. Micah and Katie live in a sunny suburban subdivision that is anything but eerie. Yet they're hearing unexplained thumps in the night. Car keys left on the kitchen counter are found on the floor. Micah, a tech guy, sees this as an opportunity to buy a big honkin' video camera and record the midnight creepshow. Katie, having experienced this kind of thing before, calls in a parapsychologist.

"Not a ghost. Most likely a demon," the expert says.

Micah smirks. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, Micah's dudeish know-it-all attitude is going to create a real ordeal for himself, Katie, and any viewers of a nervous disposition. If there is a spectral presence stalking your home, "Is that all you got?" is not a recommended greeting. As we

see, their malevolent visitor has got a whole, whole lot more.

Without financing, stars, or more than a couple of special effects, first-time writer/director Olen Peli has made a diabolically effective essay in irrational horror. The fact that the setting is a prefab box on a typical street inhabited by two ordinary people defuses the sales resistance that comes with cobwebs, castles, and carpets of blue-lit dry ice fog. In this bland domestic environment, occult occurrences are doubly freaky. The documentary-style photography is all through the lens of Micah's camera, sometimes mounted on a tripod in the sleeping couple's bedroom, sometimes handheld and jiggly.

As the days and nights pass, the couple become mortally terrified of the shadowy creature that is sharing their quarters. So do we. Peli's budget, reportedly just $11,000, was his biggest blessing. He had no money to make a monster, but he understands that the idea of the monster is what generates fear. With a few groaning floorboards, some shadows, and an inspirited use of video camera time code, Peli brews a potent virus of paranoia, relieved by solid laughs and deepened by real pathos. And the audience descends from uneasiness to nervous giggles to yelping alarm.

The interplay among the four cast members is exemplary. Katie's girlfriend drops by to confirm what a dork Micah is, and an experienced psychic makes a couple of house calls to dispense unhelpful, fatalistic advice. But actors Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston carry the film on their capable shoulders. Micah aggravates Katie with his incessant filming. He's peeved by her concealing some worrisome aspects of her childhood. They both bend the truth and use people, yet they're relatable. They're going through an emotional wringer as the spirit grows ever more aggressive, but they're committed to weathering this crisis together.

Thankfully, the origin and motives of their nemesis remain murky. All scary stories tap into one basic emotion: dread of the unknown. Imposing a glib, tidy rationale on the thing would cheapen the mystery. There is no need to define it because we remember it from the nights when it used to lurk in the dark beneath our beds.

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