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Featured DVD Review - Paranormal Activity

January 7th, 2010

Paranormal Activity - Buy from Amazon: Single Disc DVD, Limited Edition DVD, and Blu-ray

It has been a long, long time since a horror film opened in limited release and was able to expand truly wide. In fact, you have to go back a decade to The Blair Witch Project to find a film that accomplished that feat. This is quite coincidental, as Paranormal Activity shares a lot in common with that earlier film, including its ultra-low budget, and even the setup of being "found footage" / faux-reality. It would be obvious in this review to continue the comparison between the two movies, especially since they earned very similar reviews. However, I never saw the earlier film, so it is with fresh eyes that I go into this one.

The film tells the story of a demonic haunting at the home of Katie and Micah. For Katie, this is just another in a long line of weird events that have been happening to her since her childhood when she was visited by a supernatural force, which may or may not have caused her house to burn down. For Micah, well, he starts out a bit more skeptical. A bit skeptical, but eager to record any evidence he can, hence the camera set up to record the events, which he carries with him even at odd times. He sets up a microphone to capture any hidden voice, and one night even uses baby powder to capture any footprints. His skepticism quickly fades as the evidence in captured, while his initial enthusiasm for his discovery quickly disappears as the haunting escalates from weird noises and doors moving for no reason, to more violent events, culminating in the inevitable tragedy.

(That might seem like a spoiler at first, but that's part of the issue with "found footage" movies. If there was no tragedy, no one would have had to "find" the footage to begin with.)

This is a hard movie to review, because the plot is so simple. For close to 90% of the movie, there are only two people on screen and much of that time it's time-lapse footage of them sleeping. Or of them watching the footage from the night before. It's hard to discuss any details of the movie without entering "unacceptable spoiler territory." The film generates its scares not through gore or sadistic torture, like too many horror movies today do, but through the building of tension. There's almost no doubt at all that the haunting is real, at least it is real within the realm of the movie. After a few cute and funny relationship moments early in the movie, after about 20 minutes, it's clear there's something there. And you know it's going to strike, it's just a matter of when. The film is at its best during these moments. The filmmakers do a great job of letting the tension rise little-by-little while the moviegoers' anticipation rises.

However, this brings us to probably the biggest weakness in the movie: For a lot of the movie, nothing is happening. Because of this, the horror is almost more a result of the anticipation of the audience than what is actually happening on screen. And thus, if the viewer doesn't accept the premise and / or isn't willing to play along, then the movie simply won't work. True, most movies rely on suspension of disbelief, but here it feels more like an active participation than just going along with the events as they unfold. There is also a problem with hype. Looking at the reviews, the number one complaint seems to be that the film doesn't live up to the hype. If you go in expecting a movie that is a perfect ten, then you will be disappointed. On the other hand, if you go in expecting an effective horror film that builds the tension slowly with a few releases here and there, then you should be happy with the results.

Paranormal Activity was released on the home market in three versions: Single Disc DVD, Limited Edition DVD, and Blu-ray. Unfortunately, I only have the single-disc DVD, which doesn't have a whole lot of extras. In fact, it only has one extra, an alternate ending. The film can be watched with the theatrical ending or the alternate ending, while both endings can also be watched separately. I appreciate being given all of the options, but it's still not a lot in terms of extras.

The Limited Edition DVD comes with a TV and a cell from the movie. Cool, but not really necessary.

As for the Blu-ray, it does come with a Digital Copy of the movie, but that appears to be the only exclusive extra. Comparing the price is a little hard, because of the presence of the digital copy, and until the Blu-ray screener arrives (if the Blu-ray screener arrives), I won't be able to say if it is worth paying $9 more. However, since the film was shot on a consumer level camera, albeit a nice consumer level camera, I'm skeptical that the film will shine in High Definition. But I remain open minded, of course.

The Verdict

The hype surrounding Paranormal Activity is a double-edge sword. On the one hand, people were expecting one of the scariest movies of the decade, which helped build anticipation, which is necessary for the film to succeed. On the other hand, some people were expecting one of the scariest movies of the decade, and were expecting it to be scary right from the start. Given its reviews and how much money it made, the majority of people who saw it fall into the former category, I certainly was drawn into the movie, but if you are bored after the 20 minute mark, this might not be the movie for you. The lack of substantial extras is disappointing, but it is still worth picking up. The Single Disc DVD and the Blu-ray appear to be of similar value, if you like the Digital Copy, while the Limited Edition DVD is fun if you like physical extras.

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Filed under: Video Review, Paranormal Activity