Evil is a bitch in “Paranormal Activity.” Notwithstanding a few things that go bump in the night, Paramount’s supernaturally successful Slamdance pickup — promoted this week from midnight cult-film spooking to a limited release in normal business hours — might more accurately be called “Scenes From a Hellish Relationship.”
Living sinfully in San Diego, young day trader Micah (Micah Sloat) and his English-majoring girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston) bicker over how to deal with ghosts in the house — otherwise known as skeletons in the closet. Asserting in various ways that the place is his to protect (he paid for it, etc.), manly Micah hooks up a camcorder and keeps it trained on the bed after dark. This makes Katie increasingly uncomfortable, not only because her beau naturally hopes to capture some late-night nookie along with the paranormal action. Meanwhile, Katie, armed with lower-tech tools, scares Micah silly with her nagging demeanor — as unemployed live-in girlfriends are presumably wont to do.
With frights like these, who needs horror? Certainly not Oren Peli, whose minimalist mock-doc tease mostly limits its nightmare to unsettling sounds, a swinging door and footprints in baking powder — give or take Katie and her, uh, possessive habit of keeping an eye on Micah at all hours. Nervously at first, then impatiently (or with a yawn), the viewer scans Micah’s milky black-and-white surveillance-cam footage for something that might go boo — until it’s plain as day that nothing dangerous is going to appear that hasn’t already been introduced.
Far more ingenious as a work of economic crisis-era penny-pinching than of genre (or gender) play, “Paranormal Activity” is virtually unimaginable without an earlier low-budget horror sensation (take a wild guess), to which it pales in comparison. The film’s one and only opening credit has Paramount thanking Micah and Katie along with the San Diego Police Department — the “real” source of the feature presentation. But the studio’s true debt, like Peli’s, is to “The Blair Witch Project.” If Katie were any more wicked, she’d know enough to pin this particular haunting on poor Heather Donahue.
As you may have heard, a star is born in “An Education.” As Jenny, an early ’60s suburban London teen who considers giving up Oxford for a man almost twice her age, Carey Mulligan is a stunner — quick-witted and graceful in the old school rom-com tradition. The movie, too, is a snappy throwback to earlier charms — part of the current pre-sexual revolution revival, along with “Mad Men” and the Beatles reissues (the first half of them, anyway). Pleasingly conventional, “An Education” teaches us again that there’s almost nothing harder to resist in movies than a girl’s makeover, particularly when the change is philosophical as well as cosmetic.
In Danish director Lone Scherfig’s believably bright frame, Mulligan’s prep-schooled Jenny goes from balancing books on her head and reading Camus to singing along with Juliette Gréco LPs and dating David (Peter Sarsgaard), who coaxes her out of the rain and into his car under the guise of deep concern for her cello. With the reluctant approval of Dad (Alfred Molina), Jenny attends a concert with dreamy David, who could be referring to “An Education” when he calls the performance “as classical as you can get.”
And predictable, too, is this trifle, as adapted by Nick Hornby from Lynn Barber’s memoir — but so what? Jenny, who starts skipping school to attend auctions of pre-Raphaelite art and the like, falters in her studies, but excels at receiving David’s too-good-to-be-true courtship — no surprises there. David, telling little white lies alongside bigger ones, charms the pants off Dad before doing the same, but literally, with Jenny, whose devirginized deadpan quip is one for the ages: “All that poetry and all those songs about something that lasts no time at all?”
Indeed, it doesn’t take long before Jenny gets her diploma from the school of hard knocks, her education bumping hard against those pre-revolutionary gender codes. If, Oxford or no, all she’s expected to do is marry well, then why not have a little fun first? It’s a credit to Scherfig and Hornby — and Mulligan — that “An Education” remains enjoyable even as it’s administering its profoundly simple lessons.