Paranormal Activity series

For seven years the Saw franchise released a movie annually around Halloween. With three Paranormal Activity films in three years, I had kind of written off the franchise as a similarly exploitative franchise. You know how they say not to judge a book by its cover (despite that being where the plot synopsis is)? Well judging one by its release schedule is worse. To be fair I wasn’t exactly off-base when I assumed the Paranormal Activity films to be exploitative horror films, but in what way is that necessarily a bad thing? I was wrong to write them off. Having finally watched them all (in a 24-hour period), I am now more qualified to render judgment upon them…

Paranormal Activity (2007) – Paranormal Activity was made in 2007 and shown at festivals, though it didn’t gets its wide release until 2009. There was actually a rather ingenious marketing campaign where they had people go online to “demand” the movie open in their town. Teased by video footage of audiences freaking the fuck out, many people did. The movie got wide release (probably whether or not your city “demanded” it) and the buzz ensured that the movie was a huge hit (especially when coupled with its extremely modest budget). The premise of the movie is very simple. Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat play Katie and Micah (no relation). Their house is clearly haunted and Micah is using camcorders to document the weird shit that’s going on in their house. Katie has dealt with this kind of thing before (more on that later) but Micah is fascinated and wants to find out more (outright provoking the angry spirit at times).

The film deals with one of the key problems of haunted house movies, which is the question “why in the name of all that is holy don’t they just leave the fucking house?” A psychic answers that question in this movie and it actually makes the whole thing creepier: they don’t leave the house but doing so wouldn’t do a damn bit of good. It’s not the house that’s haunted. A demon is stalking Katie and won’t leave her alone, and it’s been around since she was a kid. The found footage gimmick is one I had thought was played out. The Blair Witch Project even tried the bullshit marketing trick of “this really happened” (it didn’t) twelve years ago. But the simple low-budget tricks of Paranormal Activity actually sell it pretty well and the movie builds atmosphere instead of relying on jump scares. I was surprised by how much I liked this movie and how much watching it along in the dark kind of creeped me out…

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) – Immediately after the success of Paranormal Activity, Paramount Pictures wanted a sequel to open the next Halloween. Paranormal Activity introduces us to the Rey family. There’s Katie’s sister Krisiti (Sprague Grayden), her husband Daniel (Brian Bolland), and Daniel’s daughter Ali (Molly Ephraim). This movie is actually a prequel (for the most part) and is about the crazy shit happening to the Rey’s in the couple of months before the events of the first film. The film is also “found footage.” This time its explained a little better than “I just wanted to record this.” The Reys have a new baby, Hunter, and are very camera-happy like most new parents. After a “break-in” (the aftermath is recorded for insurance purposes), Daniel installs surveillance cameras and the rest of the movie (more or less) is filmed on those. The sort of genius of the film comes from the repetition of the same static shots. It plays with expectations. You see the same images so much that it gets you playing sort of a Highlights-style game of finding what’s different about them. There are a couple big jump scares in the movie but mostly it relies, like the previous film, on atmosphere. It also expands on the storyline of the previous film, as the best horror sequels do.

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) – In the previous films both Katie and Kristi have alluded to a haunting problem in their childhood. Well, as it turns out their stepfather was a videographer (how coincidental!) so now we are transported back to 1988 where young Katie and Kristi (Chloe Csengary and Jessica Tyler Brown) are seemingly at the mercy of Kristi’s “imaginary friend.” Their mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) has little patience for talk of the supernatural, but stepfather Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) wants to know what’s going on in his house. This installment relies more on jump scares (and a couple instances of CGI, though it’s relatively restrained on that front) than the previous installments. The one major atmospheric choice of the film involves a camera mounted on the base of an oscillating fan. Again, the movie plays with expectations as the camera moves steadily back and forth. The most suspenseful scene in the movie involves that camera and a ghost in a stereotypical white sheet. The film does further expand the mythology of the girls and the demon that has been after them pretty much their whole lives. I’m not really sure where they can go from here though, as the film more or less answers the mystery. I’m sure there will be a Paranormal Activity 4 next year, but I can’t imagine it being that great. Then again, I’ve consistently underestimated every film in this series and enjoyed them all so who knows?

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