By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
A decade after The Blair Witch Project made my annual Top 10 list, I still hear from people wondering what I was thinking. They hate the home-video conceit it introduced, the near-absence of blood, the fact that we never saw a witch, and an ending too logically abrupt for their tastes.
All those things made me love the movie, which was refreshingly effective. Of course, I saw The Blair Witch Project weeks before ads proclaimed it "scary as hell," according to one critic. Moviegoers couldn't resist that marketing dare, turning a $25,000 movie into a $140 million hit.
Yet "scary as hell" in movies typically involves blood and monsters, filmed and edited in familiar fashion. Anyone seeking that from The Blair Witch Project was bound to be disappointed.
Watch the same misguided letdown materialize for Paranormal Activity, an even cheaper production — reportedly shot in a week for $11,000 — in the same shakycam vein. Rather than Maryland woods, the haunted place is an upscale San Diego townhouse (owned by writer-director Oren Peli). There are two victims of things going bump in the night, not three.
Otherwise, Paranormal Activity isn't very different until the final half-hour, when Peli gives audiences what Blair Witch didn't: a clear motive for the mayhem, a look at whatever causes this ruckus and nifty shocks leading to it. Nothing complicated; a little wind here, some baby powder there, noises offscreen and a visceral finale. But it works, if you allow it.
I saw Paranormal Activity at the Telluride Film Festival, a late show for viewers knowing next to nothing about it beforehand. Anticipation among the mostly young, hip crowd was palpable, as was boredom by the halfway point. Peli stretches his exposition and teasing too long. We get it: Something supernatural is hounding Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) while they sleep, and they're clumsily using a videocamera to document it.
A rising wave of mocking comments ("Don't go in the bathroom!") was replaced by rapt silence and occasional gasps as Paranormal Activity found terror traction in its second half. I'd been ready to leave after an hour but was glad to have stuck around. Everything Peli does is executed simply and effectively, deserving credit for ingenuity on a bare-bones budget. Just like Blair Witch, except that film did it first, creating a hoax about being a true story that audiences fell for.
Paranormal Activity tries the same thing, but we're wiser now. Don't go expecting the next breakthrough in movie horror, or anything scary as hell. The side of your brain enjoying the show will whisper: "It's only a movie." The other side will yell: "I know."
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.