Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Outsider Becomes the Establishment: A Look at the Paranormal Activity Films

The latest Paranormal Activity film, the sixth in as many years, is being sold as the final chapter in the storyline. Horror fans know to be skeptical about this sort of thing - Friday the 13th Part IV had the subtitle "The Final Chapter" and there were six more movies afterward. Still, it seemed like a good opportunity to look at each entry in the series and observe how an upstart movie can change a whole genre.

Obviously, we've got to start with the original Paranormal Activity. Possibly the most influential horror film of the last decade, it single-handedly ended the reign of the post-Abu Ghraib torture-themed films and turned the "found footage" concept from a rare gimmick to a full-on subgenre of its own. This may be a mixed blessing, given the onslaught of far less creative imitators that followed. Most of those will be forgotten in the years to come, but Paranormal Activity will remain a milestone, not just for found footage but for low-budget filmmaking in general.

The first movie works so well mostly because of how well it involves the audience. A young couple, Katie and Micah, move into a new house and quickly discover that something is amiss. Micah is a total dipshit, needlessly provoking the entity in their house and uniting the viewers in a shared exasperation. Things escalate to the point where they decide to videotape themselves sleeping at night to get a better idea of what's happening. This do-it-yourself home surveillance is the meat of most of the movies in the series. The audience reviews the footage along with the characters, scanning the frame for the slightest bit of movement. The viewers are so worked up that even minor incidents like the sheets moving or a shadow moving across the wall get a huge reaction. Everything escalates to a grim conclusion that, thanks to a last-minute suggestion by none other than Steven Spielberg, leaves the door open for a sequel. After several years where horror films offered little more than English remakes of Japanese films or grueling stories about wandering tourists getting sliced up, the subtlety and creativity of this movie felt nothing short of miraculous.

Paranormal Activity 2 was not as encouraging. This one takes place shortly before the events of the original, revealing that the same demon had menaced Katie's sister, Kristi. Only in the last 10 minutes or so do we find out what happened after the end of the first movie. It expands the world of the series in a way that most good sequels do, but a lot of the original's magic was lost in the story's execution.

Instead of a single camera on a tripod, the paranormal activities are viewed through a full home security system with cameras in multiple locations. Most of the movie just cycles through these locations while the audience waits nervously for something to happen. There's so much waiting that you begin to wonder if the movie is trying to build tension or just kill time and save money. See that shot of the empty pool? That image makes up about 10 percent of the film's entire running time. I spent most of the movie feeling a strange mix of nervousness and boredom.

Maybe I'm being too harsh. After all, it's hard to follow a movie that felt so new and different. PA2 definitely could have been worse. Still, I've watched the first movie multiple times and I can't imagine ever sitting through this one again.

Following that, it certainly came as a surprise just how good Paranormal Activity 3 was. This one goes even further into the past - to the 1980s when Katie and Kristi were children and it was their parents who had a case of demonic infestation. Setting one of these films in the pre-digital era was a very smart idea as characters humorously struggle with dated problems like only being able to fit a certain amount of footage on a VHS tape.

The movie's masterstroke comes when the father, while trying to find a way to keep an eye on the large living room/dining room area in their house, attaches the camcorder to a rotating fan. This leads to scenes where the audience's point of view steadily moves from the left to the right side of the room and back again, meaning that each half of the room is out of sight for a few moments at a time. The way the filmmakers use this gimmick is utterly brilliant as subtle changes to the areas while they're not visible gets huge reactions from the audience. If that wasn't enough, the movie also adds significant detail to the overall lore of the series, revealing how Katie and Kristi first came into contact with the evil entity sometimes referred to as "Toby" and introducing a coven of witches who have been pulling the strings this entire time. Throw in a truly unsettling ending and you have a movie that's not quite on the level of the original but still quite good.

Conventional wisdom among Star Trek fans say that when it comes to the original series of movies (pre-JJ Abrams), the odd ones are bad and the even ones are great. The reverse seems to be true for this series and Paranormal Activity 4 is the lowest point. While it does reference the other films briefly, this is mostly a separate story about a family in Nevada who are just in the wrong house at the wrong time. Despite the innovations of the previous film, this one is content to return to the one-camera-in-a-bedroom format and while the demon's attacks are more brazen that what we're used to, none of it justifies the existence of another sequel.

When the movie ended and I realized that the overarching story was in basically the same place, I was pissed. I realized that a series that had started with a milestone in the history of independent horror films was now your basic Hollywood horror franchise, crapping out derivative sequels that were deliberately pointless so that the story could stay unresolved and the series could keep making money forever. I bid farewell to the series until I started hearing that the sixth movie was going to end things. With only two movies left, I figured I might as well catch up.

At this point, the producers stopped using numbers in the movie titles, perhaps trying to avoid drawing attention to the fact that this series was well past its expiration date. I'm adding them for the sake of clarity. I didn't see Paranormal Activity 5: The Marked Ones until well after its theatrical release and my expectations were in the gutter. However, this one won me over in a way I didn't expect - with humor.

The Marked Ones takes place in a Mexican community, adding some diversity to what had been an exclusively white series. Jesse and his friend Hector (who holds the camera for most of the movie) notice strange occurrences in their neighborhood and eventually find out that a nearby coven of witches is seeking out new recruits in very creepy fashion. There's always a lot of incidental banter in these movies but in this case, it was often laugh-out-loud hilarious. Jorge Diaz, who plays Hector, has a major gift for comedic delivery and I hope to see him in other films. While watching this movie, my wife gave me a strange look at one point and I explained that "this is supposed to be a horror movie but I'm laughing my ass off."

When the demonic hijinks come, it's nothing we haven't seen before. However, the ending is surprisingly badass, as Hector recruits the local gangster and his pals to storm the coven and start unloading on the witches with shotguns. It's ridiculous but totally awesome and pretty cathartic after five movies.

Finally, we arrive at this year's Paranormal Activity 6: The Ghost Dimension. A family moves into the house from PA3 and finds the VHS tapes which include footage recorded after the events of that film. It does a decent job bringing in elements from all the other movies, although PA4's story is so pointless that it's only alluded to in a single line of dialogue.

The gimmick of this movie is a modified camera that (somehow) can see the presence of the demon, which appears as a mass of swirling inky particles. It's quite a change of pace in a series that relied on unseen menace, but it does lead to some unique moments of suspense where we know exactly where the demon is but the characters being filmed do not. However, the series has become so dependent on cheap horror tricks that it can't even follow its new rules - the demon has a habit of suddenly disappearing and reappearing from view just for the sake of a jump scare. The haunting escalates into a surprisingly old-school showdown with the demon complete with some conspicuously bad CGI.

So is it really the end of the series? Well, based on how it ends, it could pass as a finale even if there are loose ends left unresolved. Still...ending a series for good is not really how the movie industry rolls these days and I wouldn't be surprised to see some kind of spin-off/prequel/reboot in a few years. The onslaught of found footage films has lasted longer than anyone thought, although the current new wave of horror may be what takes it out of the mainstream. Movies like The Babadook and It Follows present their horrors with a technical proficiency and inventive cinematography that's the total opposite of the found footage film's attempts at verisimilitude.

Ranking the series (from best to worst): 1, 3, 5, 6, 2, 4

Monday, October 12, 2015

The 24 Hour Setlist - Questions and Answers

The big day is less than a month away, so I figured I would try and answer whatever questions might come up about this unique undertaking.

Where do I donate?

My Extra Life page is here. It also gives an outline of why I chose to do this and what their cause is all about.

Can I donate now or do I have to wait until the marathon?

Whichever you like. If you are planning to donate, make sure you do it before November 8, because that's when the marathon ends.

Where do I watch the stream?

At my Twitch channel. Right now there isn't anything on there, but starting at 8:30 am on Saturday, November 7 it will broadcast all 24 hours of the marathon. I know nobody's going to sit there for all 24 hours, but I hope people pop in and out. You can leave comments in the chat window to the side and I'd appreciate it if someone could let me know if the audio or video quality starts to give out.

What is with you kids and this Rock Band stuff? How can you sing in a video game?

Well, I'm firmly into my 30s now and still a big fan of these games! For those who nothing about this series, Rock Band is not your typical videogame. Up to 4 players can play together on instrument controllers (lead and bass guitars, a drum set and a microphone) and try to replicate the rhythms and melodies of real songs that get licensed for the series.

The vocals system is reminiscent of a karaoke machine, although in addition to the lyrics, the game shows you the pitches of each note relative to the others. Your job is to be as accurate as you can in singing the song.

Why don't you just learn a real instrument?

Sure, just as soon as everyone who plays Call of Duty enlists in the military and heads to Afghanistan. Actually, that doesn't really work on me cause my voice is my voice, regardless of where I use it.

Why did you pick this game to play for 24 hours?
I figure if you're going to play a game this long, you should be good at it. I've never been as good at a game (or perhaps anything else) as I am at Rock Band. This post has more about my history with the games.

What are the songs?
All 335 songs on the 24 hour setlist are listed in order here.

Rock Band 4 just came out. Why are you doing this on Rock Band 3?

The short answer is that I planned a lot of this before I even knew Rock Band 4 was going to happen. It would be tough to switch this late in the process.

The longer answer is for any RB fans who were looking for more details. Up until recently, we weren't sure how much of the previous series content would be available so soon after its launch. Worst case scenario is that I wouldn't even have enough for 24 hours (I didn't want to repeat any songs). Also, we've recently found out that they won't be any quickplay setlists, meaning that I would have to select each of 335 songs one at a time...for 24 hours. I would much rather let the huge setlists I've already put together in RB3 just play out.

So I suppose this is my farewell to Rock Band 3, which I've had for 5 years. If I do this again next year, I'm sure I'll have come up with a feasible way to do it in Rock Band 4.

How are you going to sing for 24 hours straight? You're going to kill your voice, are you crazy?

Maybe. I hoped the audacity of the idea would get some interest.

My approach to the challenge is that it's a marathon, not a sprint. I don't plan on singing "full voice," like I would at a karaoke place or in the car. Going "half voice" is a lot less strain on your vocal cords and probably more sensible when I have another mic collecting streaming audio right near me. I hope it sounds at least decent, but I'm not out to win a Grammy with this, I'm trying to go the distance. Other than that, it's a matter of stocking up on bottled water and cough drops, going to the bathroom during long guitar solos and enjoying myself!

Any more questions? Leave them in the comments and I'll be happy to answer!