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'Paranormal Activity': Fright Nights, By Kurt Loder

In the dark, something stirs.

Even Roger Corman might have hesitated to pitch this deal to one of his hungry young protégés: "You get a little over $11,000, one camera and two unknown actors to make a really scary movie. No effects, of course. Oh, and no gore, please." Imagine the mad laughter.

And yet first-time director Oren Peli, working with exactly these restrictions, made such a movie in seven days. And it really is scary. [movie id="369646"]"Paranormal Activity"[/movie] relies for much of its effect on its format: We see all of the film's action via deadpan video footage shot by one or another of the two main characters. (By the actors who play them, in fact; the film had no cinematographer.) This isn't a fresh gimmick, of course. It's frankly borrowed from the 10-year-old "Blair Witch Project." But whereas that picture blew up on the basis of Internet hype (the supposedly "found" footage in it was initially claimed to be real), this one isn't trying to sucker you; it only seeks to creep you out. And unlike "Blair Witch," which fell short at the end, "Paranormal" delivers.

The setup couldn't be much more minimal. A girl named Katie (B-movie neophyte Katie Featherston) has moved in with her boyfriend, Micah (novice actor Micah Sloat). Their San Diego house (director Peli's actual home) is spacious in the enviable California manner, so there's more than enough room for the two of them -- and, as it turns out, for something else as well. Possibly the same something that's been haunting Katie since she was a kid. Now strange things are starting to happen again in her new home -- weird creaks and scratchings, otherworldly whispering -- and Katie's spooked. But Micah is intrigued. He acquires a high-def digicam, carries it with him all around the house, then at night locks it down on a tripod in their bedroom. Every morning they review the previous night's footage. We see what the camera sees. Soon we're spooked, too.

The recurring static bedroom shot is a shrewd effect. It offers only an unvarying view of the bed, with Katie and Micah asleep in it, and, off to the side, through the bedroom door, a long dark hallway. Digital time code clicks along in a corner of the screen. In the first night's footage, all we notice is a Lynchian low-frequency rumble. This ominous sound is back again on the second night, but this time there's also a small, unsettling occurrence in the dark stillness. The next morning, Katie discovers something odd downstairs. The tension tightens like a skull clamp.

The locked-down bedroom shots exacerbate the tension more effectively than any onslaught of hyperactive camerawork could. Nothing moves -- until something does. By day, we see Katie and Micah going about their domestic lives -- a little bickering, a little snogging, the usual. (They don't seem to get out much.) At one point, a psychic is brought in for consultation but soon feels a get-out-of-here vibe from the house and splits. Then darkness falls again, and the troubled couple once again climbs the stairs, heading back to bed. If only it were just to dream.

("Paranormal Activity" is a Paramount Pictures release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of [article id="1623479"]"An Education"[/article] and [article id="1623493"]"Trucker,"[/article] both new in theaters this week.

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