[Ed. - This post contains spoilers for Paranormal Activity. You've been warned.]
Yes, the recently released Paranormal Activity has a lot in common with The Blair Witch Project, including a found-footage construct, improvised acting, a supernatural villain, and a unique marketing strategy. But in three crucial ways, Paranormal Activity is a far better film.
1. It's not boring: Blair Witch relied so heavily on its construct that it forgot to include any real scares. After 50 minutes of kids walking in circles in the woods, the creeping sense of impending doom was gone. Paranormal Activity, on the other hand, keeps squeezing the noose a bit tighter with every scene.
2. The end isn't a let down: One of my main gripes with Blair Witch is that its climax is even more boring than the rest of the movie. The audience deserves at least one good shot of the witch. Instead, we get someone standing in the corner and a whole lot of dirt floor. Yawn. Paranormal Activity gives us a real climax, and a brief but perfect shot of a shadowy demon made flesh and blood.
It's an example of the hardest type of horror movie to film: In "Final Destination and the importance of insight," I wrote that there are only two horror movies. The most common is called Bad Things Happen Off the Beaten Path. The second is called Sometimes Bad Things Just Happen. For all its innovation, Blair Witch is merely a re-scripting of the former. Kids stray away from society's norms and get punished for it. Paranormal Activity is a different sort of film. Like Halloween or Jaws, it gives us a metaphor for the random, meaningless, real-life evils that are suffered by innocent people in their own homes when they least expect it. This type of horror film is nearly impossible to make. But when it's done well, it always costs you a bit of your sanity.
The bottom line is, I'm never going witch-hunting in Maryland. People who do probably get what they deserve. But I am going to lock my doors, turn out my lights and climb into my bed at night. And if even this conventional, careful life can't keep me safe, what can?