Spooktober 2014: Paranormal Activity 1-3

[quick programming note: I’m going to be finishing off Otherbound in a single post toward the end of the month]

Back in 2009 Paranormal Activity came out and

Actually wait, back in 1999 The Blair Witch project came out and everyone thought it was awesome (well if you want to go back even further The Last Broadcast came out the year before (and there was also Cannibal Holocaust) but no one really noticed). The found-footage genre laid low for a while, The Blair Witch Project existing mostly as a unique novelty, but the financial legacy of the film couldn’t be ignored forever. Anything that makes literally ten times its minuscule budget is going to cause studio executive’s eyes to light up, even taking the film’s expensive marketing blitz into account.

But why make a shit-load of money on one cheap movie when you can repeatedly make a shit-load of money on a whole series of cheap movies? There was already a precedent for this, with the relatively inexpensive Saw franchise becoming a yearly Halloween staple, so it made sense for Paramount to drive Paranormal Activity into the ground with a whole boatload of sequels. We’re going to look at two of them today!

Paranormal Activity 

Katie Featherstone and Micah Sloane (played by Katie Featherstone and Micah Sloane) are a sort of Norman Rockwell-esque Perfect American Couple for the 2000s, living in a big fancy California house on the money Micah makes as a successful home day trader while Katie attends college. They’re young, attractive and rich! Life is great!

Except for the fact that Katie has been plagued since childhood by poltergeist-like activity and sightings of a shadowy being. It’s not clear when exactly she informed Micah about this, but we do learn that he didn’t know when they decided to move in together. At the start of he movie he purchases a camera and sets it up to document any ghostly activity around the house, ostensibly with the intent of getting to the bottom of the problem but actually because he thinks it would be totally fucking awesome to have ghost footage on his hard drive. Katie on the other hand just wants the thing to go away and hires a psychic to help out, a move Micah objects strenuously to not out of skepticism but because his patriarchal hyper-machismo can’t abide the thought of someone else defending his home and woman.

Over the course of the next 21 days things go spectacularly wrong for our two leads, possibly as a direct result of Micah’s stupidity. At night the entity’s shenanigans escalate rapidly from mysterious creaks and footsteps to violent destruction and full-on possession, and during the day we see the psychological strain that this is taking on Katie and Micah. Simply moving out of their house isn’t an option; the being stalking Katie is a demon, not a ghost, and i t ‘ s  n o t  t h e  h o u s e  t h a t ‘ s  h a u n t e d.

The thing you have to understand about Paranormal Activity is that it is much more about the erosion of Katie and Micah’s relationship than it is about the demon, just as The Blair Witch Project was much more about people getting lost in the wilderness that it was about the witch. There are clearly already cracks there before the movie even begins, Micah’s adolescent immaturity clashing with Katie’s more sensible attitude, and there’s a throwaway scene about Micah taking a hit on the stock market that becomes much more ominous if you keep in mind that the film is set right before the 2007 financial disaster. Their seemingly idyllic existence is already doomed; the demon is just a physical manifestation of the forces driving them to destruction.

But ignoring that, is Paranormal Activity a good horror movie? That very much depends. Some people were absolutely fucking terrified of The Blair Witch Project, while others were left baffled. That’s because the movie plays on a very particular kind of fear, and if it’s not something you’ve experienced in your actual everyday life it just won’t connect with you (for the record I saw The Blair Witch Project on TV late at night and didn’t sleep for several days afterward).

Paranormal Activity is very much the same way. The particular strain of fear it taps into is the fear of night-time invasion, the fear that once the lights go out and you’re helpless in your bed something is going to breach the flimsy defenses of your sanctum. It doesn’t ultimately matter whether it’s a ghost or a demon or a human intruder that’s going bump in the night. Speaking as someone who has quite frequently lain petrified in bed convinced that that car door slamming across the street was coming from inside my house, this movie got me.  It got me good.

Whenever horror comes up on this very blog I bang on about subtlety, and Paranormal Activity is a prime example of how to do subtle horror. For a long time nothing particularly startling happens in the night-time sections; when shit does hit the fan the demon’s antics are mostly low-key. Doors open by themselves, mysterious roars and bangs echo through the house, someone gets up in the middle of the night and wanders around. Eventually we’re treated to Katie getting dragged out of bed and down the hall, but by that point the feeling of all-consuming dread heightens the impact of what could have been silly or over the top. The entire movie was filmed in the director’s own house and this grounded setting and low-key mood really help to bridge the gap between cinematic convention and audience suspension of disbelief.

If you’re susceptible to that kind of horror then Paranormal Activity will probably get its hooks into you hard, every new appearance of the blue night-vision tint accompanied by a palpable sense of dread. Unfortunately you might start wishing you could see it more often, because Paranormal Activity stumbles pretty severely during its daylight, drama-focused scenes.

Mostly this is due to Micah. I can understand from a big-picture perspective why he was written the way he was, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s an intensely annoying little prat. It becomes increasingly difficult to care about him over the course of the story as we watch him repeatedly prod the demon into greater and greater acts of malevolence out of sheer stubborn-mindedness. Katie fares somewhat better, but she gets saddled with the role of the killjoy character who keeps insisting that they turn off the camera even though you know full well they’re not going to. As a consequence Paranormal Activity is frequently nerve-shredding, but you’re probably not going to care very much when the final night comes and the demon plays its hand.

Paranormal Activity 2: Paranormal Boogaloo

So you’ve got a big smash hit on your hands, and you like money so you decide to franchise that shit (in this hypothetical scenario you are both the head of a film studio and the movie’s writer and director). But what approach to take- sequel? Prequel? How about both?

Yes, Paranormal Activity 2 takes place before and after the first Paranormal Activity, focusing on Katie’s sister Kristi and positing that she was was actually the demon’s primary target all along, thus blatantly contradicting information given in the first movie and largely rendering its entire story pointless (this is a running theme with Paranormal Activity sequels, as we’ll see).

The film opens with Kristi and her dopey husband Dan introducing Dan’s daughter from a previous marriage to their newborn son, Hunter. Shortly after this their house is completely ransacked by the demon from the first movie, possibly in retaliation for naming their son Hunter. Dan installs a bunch of security cameras around the place, which capture an escalating series of ghostly events. There is a Mexican housekeeper who can sense ghosts and knows how to perform exorcisms. I am not making this up.

In terms of actual scares Paranormal Activity 2 demonstrates exactly why trying to make lightning strike twice often doesn’t work. The first movie operates on a slow burn of escalating ghostly activity and tension; how do you follow up on that without feeling like a retread of the same material? The answer, apparently, is that you don’t. Having seen the demon finally let loose at the end of the first movie, we now have to sit through another hour and ten minutes of it moving doors and sliding furniture across the ground before we get back to that kind of supernatural chaos. Even worse, the movie decides we need an actual explanation for the demon’s presence, apparently not realizing that the idea of the thing just randomly latching on to Katie for no clear reason is far scarier. The explanation we’re given (via a Google search of course) is that someone in the family’s past made a DeAl WiTh ThE dEvIl DeMoN for wealth and prosperity in exchange for their first-born son, and with the birth of Hunter it’s come to collect its payment. Why is it using such a ludicrously roundabout method of doing so? Why does it bother trolling its victim for weeks before striking? No idea!

The movie is simply not as frightening and just plain not as good as the first one by any measure. The first movie undercut its horror with the slow-boiling conflict between Katie and Micah; this time around we get some bickering between a teenage daughter and her dad (number two in the American screen writer’s playbook, right after “adultery”) and…. that’s pretty much it. Whereas in PA1 I didn’t care about the characters because they were both annoying and unlikable, here I don’t care about them because they’re just not interesting.

It’s a shame too because there is at least one scene in the film that proves the basic concept still has some tricks up its sleeves: late in the movie Kristi is possessed while alone in the house with Ali, her step-daughter. This scenario could have gone in multiple over the top directions, but instead the movie plays it subtle by having Kristi act noticeably weird and unsettling, but not to an extent that would make Ali call the cops or try to flee the house. I found myself wishing the film had played this for more tension than it does, as we only got brief glimpses of a possessed character in the first movie, enough to drive home that people in that state are extremely dangerous but not to reveal exactly what they’re capable of.

Beyond that one sequence Paranormal Activity 2 just kind of falls flat. It’s not terrible, it’s just utterly forgettable.

Paranormal Activity 3: Tokyo Drift

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Paranormal Activity well was already drying up by this point, because the third outing goes for the prequel approach again, this time moving all the way back to the 80s to show us the origins of the titular Activity during Katie and Kristi’s childhoods. What’s that? It was made abundantly clear during the first movie that nothing all that exciting on the demon front actually happened when they were kids? PFFFT who cares, let’s just blatantly contradict ourselves again.

Okay, I’m being mean. PA3 is actually not a bad little horror movie, despite once again mostly copying the formula of the original. It starts out with a brief bit of framing story about a cache of tapes that went missing during the house destruction in the second movie, the contents of which are then mysteriously revealed to the audience somehow (the movies stopped trying to pretend they were real at around this point).

It’s 1988 and a young Kristi has started talking to an “invisible friend” she calls Tobie. Her parents just think it’s cute, until one night while attempting to film a sex tape (this is a running joke in the franchise) the Dad of the family catches a glimpse of some kind of invisible entity and decides to set up cameras around the house, including the bold new innovation of a camera on a swivel-tripod that moves back and forth by itself. Over the course of successive days and nights it becomes apparent that “Tobie” is not quite as imaginary as everyone thought and the family are eventually forced to flee their home in the face of escalating demonic assault. It’s a good thing the girls’ dear, kind, sweet grandmother who is totally not part of a coven of evil witches is there to give them shelter!

…. Yeah, that happens. It’s actually pretty creepy despite how cheesy it probably sounds. In fact the whole movie is a vast improvement over the second installment, despite going much further into standard horror territory. Everyone working behind the camera on this one seemed to realize that doors opening by themselves weren’t going to be very effective a third time around and so we get scares less often, but they’re much more extreme when they do happen. The invisible friend dynamic gets played for all it’s worth, with Kristi insisting that people be nice to “Tobie” and avoid sitting in his seat during tea parties, lest he get pissed. It sounds corny, until you see what happens when someone does actually make him angry.

A big part of what makes the movie work is the performances given by the actresses who play Katie and Kristi; they’re honestly kind of astonishing, easily outstripping their adult counterparts from any of the three films in terms of how realistic their reactions to the demonic events are. Which is good, because no one else in the movie has much going on. The girls’ parents aren’t quite as annoyingly clueless as their counterparts in the previous movie, but they don’t have much to do until the totally batshit climax in the evil grandmother’s house.

In case the phrase “evil grandmother’s house” didn’t tip you off, PA3’s plot is kind of bullshit. Not only does it once again contradict plot points established previously, it doesn’t even really function as much of a prequel; events that we were told about directly in the first movie, like Katie and Kristi’s house mysteriously burning down, don’t happen and you’re left with the feeling that it would take a second prequel to get the backstory to link up to previously established canon, sort of like if the Star Wars prequels had ended before Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader. The movie only really makes sense if you treat it as completely separate from the rest of the franchise.

Which is perhaps not a bad idea. Paranormal Activity 3 isn’t a great movie by any stretch, but it’s a decent little horror movie and easily the best the franchise has been since the original.

(Watch out for reviews of the fourth and fifth movies later in the month)


One thought on “Spooktober 2014: Paranormal Activity 1-3

  1. braak

    I remember being super annoyed by the characters in Paranormal Activity, and thinking that the solution is one of those standard writer’s tricks to deal with the fact that everyone is being kind of obnoxious, which is to just switch the motivations.

    The movie makes a lot more sense emotionally (and Micah comes off as less of a prick) if, after being excited by and then talking Katie into filming the ghosts, it’s Micah who changes his mind and wants to call the whole thing off, and Katie who — within arm’s reach of answers about her haunting for the first time — doesn’t let him.


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