I’ll credit The Blair Witch Project with setting the pattern:(1) take a cast of unknown actors, (2) shoot in a style mimicking the most amateur cinéma vérité, (3) put the characters in the middle of something they don’t understand and (4) don’t have them realize they’re in over their heads until it’s far too late. This formula has been replicated (with varying degrees of success) in Cloverfield, Quarantine, and in a more mainstream vein, District 9. The latest entry in this sub-sub genre is Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity.When we meet Katie and Micah (the real names of leads Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) they are already in the middle of something strange: Katie believes she is being visited by a presence that’s been part of her life since she was a kid; Micah gets the bright idea to record them sleeping in order to see what’s really going on. Because of the conventions of the formula (3, 4) we know how this is going to end.

But watching it is fun. The cast (only four actors) masterfully pull off one of the most difficult things an actor can do: act like a “real” person without sounding and looking as stilted and stiff as real people do on camera. The dialogue is all improvised but manages to sound completely natural, opposed to the occasional awkwardness the same approach produces in, say, Curb Your Enthusiasm.Some of the best and most tense scenes don’t involve the paranormal at all, just the normal interplay of a couple, familiar to anyone who has ever experienced The Argument You Know You Cannot Win. This is the closest you will probably ever come to seeing how “real people” would react in an unreal situation.Watching the movie I was engaged, entertained; I smiled at how nothing was broken (it was shot entirely “on location” in the director’s house). I enjoyed the performances and the intelligence of the situations the characters found themselves in. The only thing I didn’t experience was fear. I’d seen the promos with audiences gasping, I’d read that Steven Spielberg (instrumental in getting the movie distributed) had been scared “beyond measure” watching the movie alone during the day. There were things that happened that made me think, “That was kinda cool” or “How did they do that,” but nothing that’s going to keep me up nights.Except maybe trying to figure out how I can get a $61 million (to date) return on an $11,000 investment.

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