Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Paranormal Activity Series

Back in 2004, we had a small little horror film released called Saw, which was a surprise critical and commercial hit around the world. As a result of this success, we were subjected to not 1, not 2, but 6 more sequels, that would be released in October every year to hopefully cash in on the Halloween movie going crowd. The first couple of sequels were passable, but it quickly delved into such an insufferable franchise, that it was no wonder the box office take for the series was flailing towards the end. Let's now take a back step to September 2009, where a small little horror film called Paranormal Activity became a midnight sensation. Skip to a couple of months later, and the Oren Peli directed film becomes the most profitable film of all time, taking in nearly $200 million worldwide off a budget of $15 000. Naturally, we had the new Saw, with a sequel being released each October since. Now, with this being a horror franchise and all, as well as a franchise that's shown completely in the found footage format, you'd assume that, come sequel number 2, the series would have already well and truly run out of steam. Well, you'd be wrong. It's an absolute surprise and pleasure to say that the Paranormal Activity films, a series from the 21st Century, is such a consistently well executed series. It's a series that feels like a complete and coherent one despite the multiple change in directors. It's a series that knows how to please its audience. And while its not a particularly great series, its a damn fun one, and gets extra credit for actually producing decent scares in the age of shite like The Fourth Kind and The Roommate. 
Paranormal Activity
As we progress throughout the series, we're gradually going back in time. In other words, each film is a prequel to the previous. Proceedings begin in September 2006 in the first film, where we follow a young couple Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (also the actors names) who are being haunted in their house by a paranormal entity. Every night, they place a camera in their bedroom to capture what ever is going on in the house, allowing us to see all sorts of creepy happenings. We then move back to August 2006 in the second film, a month or so before the events of the first film, where we focus on Katie's younger sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and her family, who are also being traumatized and haunted by this entity. Instead of placing a camera in the bedroom, they install security cameras throughout the house, again to try and capture any paranormal activity that occurs. We jump back nearly 30 years to September 1988 in the third film, to see where it all began. In this one we see Katie and Kristi as children (Chloe Cserngey and Jessica Tyler Brown), who are being haunted by what we assume is the same entity. The man of the house Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) also detects strange happenings in the house, and, like Katie and Micah in the first film, set up cameras in the bedrooms and the kitchen, but this time he places one of the cameras on an oscillating fan.

As you can see here, the plots of each film are wafer thin, but that works with the found footage format, allowing each film to not feel more complex or heavy than it needs to be. What really works with these films is the fact that each film ties in nicely to the last, particularly the second film, which develops on the ideas produced in the first one, and cleverly ties into each other. Number 3 doesn't add too much to the overall mythology to the previous two, in fact at times during the third you'll forget that it had anything to do with the first film. Despite this, it means that it can stand on its own as a decent horror film rather than just a decent Paranormal Activity film. That's what the third one has that the second one lacks. In order to fully appreciate number 2, you need to have seen the first one, which also works great on its own. As you'd expect with the found footage films, there are a wealth of plot holes throughout, such as the fact that you never really see these people make any contact with the outside world, that are easy to look past thanks to the tension and the scares. 
Paranormal Activity 2
The performances are done well enough to make you forget the fact that these are actual films, going hand in hand with the realism the films attempt to create. Featherston, the only one who crosses over into all three, fares the most memorable, particularly in the first one. One of the big surprises is the performances of the two young girls in number 3, particularly young Jessica Tyler Brown, who's excellent for her age. More importantly, I must talk about the direction of the films. One of the biggest things that annoys me with many series these days, is the change of directors that many franchises encounter. Unless you're the Harry Potter series, where a change in director can be for the better, more often than not a change in director spells poison to the franchise. Just look at Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek and Narnia, all series that have pretty much gone downhill. Which makes the Paranormal Activity franchise such a big surprise, as despite 4 different directors (Oren Peli for the first, Tod Williams for the second and Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman for the third), the series has the same atmosphere to it as well as having a great sense of coherence. All three films are slow-burners. They all have long set up in the first half an hour or so, before settling in for a scary and intense second half. While the long set ups can occasionally be a bit tedious to sit through, it's worthwhile in the end, with the back and forths between day and night creating a great sense of tension and anticipation which makes the scares even more satisfying in the final half. In particular, Joost and Schulman, creators of this year's 'documentary' Catfish, strike the perfect balance between humour, tension and sheer terror, as well as paying homage to horror classics like The Shining and Poltergeist. The decision to use the same static shots (bar the oscillating fan) is a smart one, as we have no idea where to look, making the tension a million times more palpable. 

Yeah you won't find solid character development or inventive filmmaking here. Who cares? You're here for the scares right? Well that's what you'll damn well get. The second and third films in particular have balls to the wall, pull out all the stops third acts that will absolutely freak you out. The final 20 minutes of the third film is undoubtedly one of the scariest and most intense cinema experiences I've had. But it's the first film that really gets under the skin. Peli creates the right amount of tension and paces the film so well, that it doesn't need a balls to the wall third act. You're already chilled to the bone. It's not just the fact that you don't know what will happen next that gets you. It's the fact that anything can happen. But why do the scares work so well? It's because of the simplicity of it all. Too often these days do horror films get bogged down by an over reliance of CGI. Well, this series avoids that all together, making the scares feel and look authentic and real. The simplest thing such as a pan falling or footsteps in powder are so much more effective than people being trapped in a torture trap. And that's what makes this one worth watching. It relies on simplicity rather than gore and CGI. 
Paranormal Activity 3
There's something that prevents this franchise from being a great one rather than just a decent one. And that's the fact that it's not entirely memorable. I mean sure, the first and the third might give viewers a sleepless night or two, but on the whole, you're pretty much forget it as soon as you leave the cinema. A fault also lies in the credibility of it all. I know it's just a movie, but seriously. If you and your family were being absolutely traumatized by a poltergeist, would you carry around a camera everywhere you go? No, I didn't think so. So yeah it has all these flaws. Yeah it has a slow build up. Yeah some may find the whole found footage thing a bit gimmicky. But I have to credit this series for being a horror franchise that keeps an impressive level of consistency throughout. In a nutshell, the first one is the most creepy, the second one is well structured, and the third one is the most intense, perhaps the scariest. If you are a fan of a good ghost story, you can't go past this. The end of the third one hints at a fourth installment. If it's as consistently decent as the first three, bring it on I say.

3.5 out of 5


  1. Terrific reviews and great writing! Enjoyed first paragraph. Saw films suck, but the first was good and the sequel was reasonable. After that it just got stupid.

  2. Thanks man, and I definitely agree with you on the Saw films

  3. brilliant review, I haven't watched any of the paranormal activity films, but its good to hear that it hasn't gone downhill like Saw did.

  4. I'm contemplating watching the Paranormal Activity films for a while, this may have put me over the edge into watching it.

    Definitely agree with your comments about the Saw franchise, after number 3 I haven't watched any.

    Thanks for the reviews mate, this is added to my feeds