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John’s Horror Corner: An overview of the Paranormal Activity franchise

October 10, 2013

This franchise has been plowing out movies at a steady pace since 2007.  Sadly, after its first two installments audiences began to notice a significant drop in quality.  PA 3 (2011) was not so hot and began to lead us down an utterly stupid storyline in an effort to “make sense” of the events of these movies and tie them all together–they failed.  PA 4 (2012) was unforgivably awful and even failed to produce the frequent jump-scares we’ve come to expect while continuing to add suspense-softening, interest-killing, pace-slowing detail to the silly plot and timeline set in place by PA 3.  Since this franchise is now drowning in its own story-blown exposition, I thought I’d review these films and see if I can’t identify what went wrong outside of the screenplays beginning with the original film.

Paranormal Activity (2007) was written and directed by Oren Peli, who also produced all sequels and spinoffs of the franchise including the upcoming PA 5 and PA: The Marked Ones, as well as all the Insidious franchise films, The Bay and The Lords of Salem.  The dude has vision and, while later PA installments began to suffer in quality, it’s not like he had any part in the writing of those.  This first installment was an unwarranted success that made crowds jump higher and more often than most horror of decades past.

We didn’t know why anything was happening.  Nothing was explained.  But it “was” happening, and it was TERRIFYING!!!

Then PA 2 (2010) was directed by newcomer Tod Williams.  As far as I can tell, Williams did everything in his power to duplicate the first movie with an entire family instead of just a young couple.  This tactic worked.  I was thrilled with part 2.

These first two installments relied more heavily on very slow-building tension.  These predecessors basically “taught” viewers how to watch these movies in the first 20-30 minutes by offering numerous subtle, relatively unimportant objects moving as if a spectral breeze had shifted them.  This way when such production devices became important, the viewer had a trained eye—not unlike what was done with White Noise.  These movies convey a style that is very unusual.  So it came as no surprise to me that there was little middle ground in people’s opinions of them; they loved’em or hated’em.  I love’em.  Why?  Because my senses are all on full power; I’m all in; I’m practically concentrating on the screen and listening to every creak trying to sleuth out the next clue that something fishy is going on in that house.  Some people may call this “work”.  I call it cool.  They gave us a new kind of horror movie–a sensory experience.

What else did parts 1 and 2 have in common?  They both had basically zero exposition!  Things just started happening to nice people as if it was a supernatural natural disaster.  There seemed to be no distinct motive behind this supernatural force–and that…was…TERRIFYING!!!

The most common criticism I observed about Rob Zombie’s Halloween remakes was about Michael Myers’s backstory; his actions’ justification; his origin.  Now, I think Zombie did fine presenting this backstory even if it was a bit long-winded.  The events made sense and I fully understood why Myers is the way he is now because of that backstory.  But whereas everyone criticized the quality of the backstory, most of these complaints felt empty and misdirected.

I think that, without realizing it on a conscious level, these critics and reviewers were really upset that there was any explanation at all about Myers.  Exposition truly is the death horror and once you give a killer a motive–a way for viewers to identify with him beyond raw revenge or evil–the killer is no longer any more terrifying than the occasional loud noise-driven jump scare that accompanies his screen time.  That story actually took a mindless killing force of evil of unknown drive and origin, and turned him into an angry man-child with mommy issues looking for bloody brutal revenge.  In fact, Zombie turned Michael Myers from an “it” into a “him”; from a “force” into a “man.”  Suddenly he felt less supernatural and, sapping all the excitement and terror out of him, completely human.  This tangent example may seem to have no place in this article, but this is the exact same mistake that was made in the PA series in my opinion.

PA 3 (2011) was when I noticed a drop in quality, but I can totally understand why it may be others’ favorite.  While it still employed subtle moving objects, it did it less, instead relying on more mainstream devices to provoke scared jumps from the audience.

Creepy, yes.  But clearly not the branding we’ve come to expect from the franchise.

It also borrowed more heavily from the Poltergeist movies than the first two—not that I minded.  The characters’ investigation into the strange goings-on was more methodical and plot-driven.  The first two were more event-driven and investigated out of fear and curiosity.  The differences between 3 and 1 & 2 were subtle but numerous, chief amongst them being that “the paranormal” functions as a character in this movie, rather than a mysterious “force” in the first two.  As such, the actions of “the paranormal” were more blatant and felt more like “it” was doing something “to someone” whereas in 1 & 2 it was more like “something was happening” to someone in a haunted house.

PA 4 (2012) had the same directors as Paranormal Activity 3 (2011), but they seemed to have strayed from the formula that worked so well in the previous films.  For example, parts one to three open by introducing us to young couples and families that are likable, and they did this well so that we viewers would actually give a damn when bad things start happening to these characters.  They’re always some variant of an American family portrait and it’s easy for us to identify with them.  Part four begins by introducing us to a young teen.

Contrary to the prequels this ineffective character is just “handed to us” and no effort is made to show her finer qualities or her relationship with her parents.  In fact, the parents are more implied than presented until later in the movie, when they become more integral to the story.  We don’t even get the notion that the parents have a happy marriage as our victims did in Poltergeist (1982), The Conjuring(2013), Insidious (2011) or the earlier Paranormal Activity films.  As a result, we don’t know much about them and feel indifferent about their haunting.  This really served as the death-dealing blow to the film.

We also get a more culty, satanic feeling which is delivered with very few scary moments compared to the previous films.

The first two films seemed more like “house” movies in which “things were simply happening to people” as a result of “something.” Part three presented a poltergeist, a specific entity, which was actively “doing things to people.”  In part four, we get a little of both, demonstrative of poor writing and rendering our ghost less credible.  For whatever reason, the directors also used fewer subtle “did you see that?” moments when something moves or changes and if you blink you’d miss it.

Instead of shifty objects and slamming doors, we mostly see body manipulation scenes.  I miss those socking kitchen scenes.

I like this franchise and will watch as many as they release. But be warned.  If you also favored the earlier films over the more recent, you’re likely to receive more disappointment.

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