A good horror film is like a good joke, or a good magic trick; first, the story being told is almost always designed not just to distract but to divert, to focus your attention elsewhere while the punchline — or poltergeist — comes out of nowhere. Second, the more you explain it, the less enjoyable it is; we want to be fooled, and telling us how we've been fooled always negates some, if not all, of that pleasure. And with that, the people who make horror DVDs have a careful balancing act — if DVDs made for anything, it's for explaining (and, for that matter, over-explaining) films.
Paranormal Activity, Oren Pelli's writing-directing debut, was a sensation in theaters, backed by a carefully-calculated marketing campaign so carefully designed to look natural it was more Astroturf than grassroots. As Locke pointed out in his theatrical review of the film here at redblog, it was a piece of showmanship that P.T. Barnum would have been proud of, a calibrated series of slow rollouts designed to build buzz with a series of midnight screenings that made the buzz into a roar. But how does Paranormal Activity play on DVD? And does the disc over-explain the pleasures of the film?
If you missed Paranormal Activity in theaters, you'll be glad to know the film plays remarkably well on DVD at home; unlike, say, The Thing — which takes place in an Antarctic research station, which we may have a hard time imagining ourselves in — Paranormal Activity takes place all in one normal-looking home, as young couple Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston), frightened by things that go bump in the night in their San Diego home, set up a video camera to see what's going on while they sleep. And this is the nice parallelism of Paranormal Activity on DVD: They're at home, and so are you. They're watching video and getting freaked out, and so are you. Sloat and Featherston are fine actors — I don't know if I'd want to watch them play the lead roles in Hamlet, but they do a good job of improvising and faking naturalism inside Pelli's script and structure, and that counts for a lot.
And, fortunately, the DVD doesn't over-explain the film, or bombard you with making-of material or commentary; instead, you're simply presented with the option to watch the film with its theatrical ending (infamously added at Steven Spielberg's suggestion after the movie-making legend saw the original cut, and liked it, but still offered suggestions for a little punch-up that might make the film better) and watching the film with an alternate ending. Admittedly, once you offer the "alternate ending" option, you're kind of puncturing the big conceit of the film — that this is found footage from real events — but, really, if you still think that the events in Paranormal Activity are some kind of true happening (when the film opened, my personal website's search log showed people looking for "Micah Sloat Katie Featherston Police Report San Diego"), then I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn, and Paramount looks forward to getting more of your money for a sequel.
I hope that at some point Paramount actually drops the whole low-fi marketing approach and gives us a DVD of Paranormal Activity with, say, commentary and some making-of material; as it is, the DVD only has subtitles (English and French and Spanish) and a Spanish-language dubbed soundtrack. The film looks fine — at a certain point, no matter how much mastering and high-tech trickery you throw at it, a $12,000 movie shot on a high-end video camera is going to look like a $12,000 movie shot on a video camera. Paranormal Activity on DVD may not over-explain the tricks and treats the film has to offer, but it also does a great job of presenting them; don't be surprised if you find yourself acutely aware of the sounds and sense of your own house around you in the dark after you turn it off if you watch it too late at night.