Saturday, October 31, 2015
The Outsider Becomes the Establishment: A Look at the Paranormal Activity Films
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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