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FRIGHT NIGHT: A young couple try to figure out what's going on in their new house and learn more than they ever wanted to know in 'Paranormal Activity.'

Scare Tactics

'Paranormal Activity' is the most frightening film anyone will see this year

By Steve Palopoli

WRITER-DIRECTOR Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity has been labeled "the next Blair Witch Project"—meaning, essentially, horror's new runaway phenomenon—and judging from the audience reactions at one of the first screenings in the country, that doesn't seem far off. Santa Cruz was one of only 13 cities to which it was first released, and the film has been selling out its midnight screenings at the Del Mar. The reactions there reminded me of audiences at the pre-release screenings of Blair Witch, before hype, built-up expectations and misunderstandings about what that film actually was led to a huge backlash.

Here's the thing: people at Paranormal Activity were actually scared. They screamed. They were freaked out, and it was actually fun to hear people talking about how much the movie had gotten to them on the way out. Some giggled nervously, some tried to cover it up, some shook their heads as if they were trying to unsee it. For all the controversy over the changed-by–Steven Spielberg climax, I have to say it freaked me out, too. Without spoiling anything, I'll say that, personally, I wasn't all that comfortable walking into the night knowing the implications of the ending. (Interestingly, the other two endings that were considered hit a very different—shall we say very final—note.)

There are some very important differences between Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch Project that I think will help this movie in the long run. There are similarities, sure. Peli made this for $15,000, and the plot is about what you can expect anybody to get out of $15,000. It has a young couple, played by Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat using their real names (in what seems like an homage to Blair Witch), believing something unusual and disturbing is going on in their house. Micah buys a hand-held camera to try to capture it on film, recording day and night. This leads to the movie's biggest flaw, also a weakness in Blair Witch, Cloverfield and almost any other movie that uses this device, what I call Why Am I Picking Up the Camera Right Now Syndrome. It pulls me out of the movie when I have to think, "Wait, would someone really go pick up the camera and film this if that was happening?" However, it also leads to lots of genuinely creepy footage, and Peli's excellent sense of timing makes this certainly the scariest movie anyone will see this year. He actually made it in 2007, but it kicked around until Steven Spielberg saw it and supposedly was so scared he returned the DVD in a garbage bag, saying it was haunted. Now, Dreamworks and Paramount are putting it out, and it's already made back its production cost more than a dozen times over. The biggest difference between this movie and Blair Witch is that Paranormal Activity delivers when it counts. Its title is as much a threat as a name, and while it may sometimes use it as cover to deliver some unexpected twists, it always lives up to it.

Movie Times PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (R; 99 min.), directed and written by Oren Peli and starring Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, opens Oct. 9 at the AMC Mercado in Santa Clara and the Oakridge in San Jose. For movie alerts, follow us at

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