October 26, 2009 at 12:00 PM EDT

The smash-hit haunted- suburban-house thriller Paranormal Activity may not be a sequel to The Blair Witch Project (that movie already came out, and was best forgotten). But in spirit, at least — cheesy paranormal pun intended — there’s no denying that it’s a complete and total Blair Witch companion piece. Super-duper-low-budget shot-on-video vérité spook show. Starring no-name actors as antsy squabbling twentysomethings who record their every interaction on shaky handheld camera. As they look to document tangible evidence of an old-fashioned, otherworldly demon — a witch! a ghostly spirit! — that the audience virtually never sees. Which is part of what’s so freaky. Except that by the end we sort of, kind of do see it. Which is even freakier.

The comparison, of course, hardly ends there. There’s the matter of…low-profile indie creepfest turned film festival triumph. Released with an ingenious grassroots Internet marketing campaign. Which helps to bring about the ultimate word-of-mouth hit: a sleeper turned crossover megaplex blockbuster that whips all those bloody/CGI-overkill/big-budget horror films at their own manufactured-fear game.

So now that Paranormal Activity has trumped the odds to become a triumph of popular cinema, one that’s every bit as remarkable and zeitgeisty and chattered-about as Blair Witch was a decade ago, it’s time to pose that simple, irresistible, and — to me — critically vital question:

Which movie is better?

As a fan of both films, I confess that I haven’t entirely made up my mind yet. In fact, here are a few of my back-and-forth thoughts:

The Blair Witch Project did it first. Originality counts for a lot, and Blair Witch gets points for inventing the whole peekaboo-vérité, form-follows-function, monster-mash-as-MTV-reality-show vibe.

The two characters in Paranormal Activity are more fun to watch. The Blair Witch crew, apart from the fact that I totally bought their authenticity, never made that much of an impression on me; they were a tad nondescript. But the two Paranormal actors, spiky/winsome Katie Featherstone and nattery/glum Micah Sloat, pack a yeasty little couples drama, which they more or less improvised, into the movie. Their interaction is tense, affectionate, cranky, and alive, even when they get on each other’s nerves (or, on occasion, ours).

Most memorable iconic shot: In Blair Witch, it’s that kid literally dripping with fear while talking into a flashlight. In Paranormal, it’s that endlessly repeated and varied black-and-white surveillance-cam shot of the bedroom — a slowly dawning view of primal terror on a time-code.

Blair Witch convinced a lot of folks it was real. Ten years ago, that was an amazing stunt to pull off.

Paranormal Activity is “only” a movie. Which reminds you, 10 years later, that you don’t have to believe a horror movie is real to believe in it.

Blair Witch is subtler. It’s not just about witches, demons, monsters — it’s about the terror of night, the godforsaken weirdness of the unknown. Which is exactly why a lot of folks hated it; they thought it was too much floating-dread atmosphere and not enough payoff. But that, to its fans, is exactly what made Blair Witch so shivery and artful.

Paranormal Activity is scarier. Let’s be honest: When we go to a horror movie, even one that glories in its lack of special effects, we want to see the thing that scares us. We want to know what’s under the bed, what’s behind the door — and Paranormal Activity provides that catharsis.

So now it’s time for everyone to put on their film critic hat and decide: Which movie is better? Paranormal Activity or Blair Witch? And why?

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