Paranormal Activity

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

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No popular variety of movie tends to take more heat from the viewing public than found-footage horror. Of all the reasons people purport to hate these films they still go to see in droves, the most reasonable is the complaint that they’ve made artlessness not just acceptable but necessary. Horror, as a genre, historically requires at least a basic level of craftsmanship to properly function. But found-footage movies—which strive, with variable degrees of effort and success, to look like amateur recordings—accommodate ineptitude by their very nature. Worse, they tend to require that gifted filmmakers “play dumb,” suppressing their talents to create the illusion of a bunch of shrieking idiots running around with digital cameras. “Don’t worry,” these mock-doc fright flicks insist. “All of this is supposed to look like garbage.”

But found-footage doesn’t have to be an excuse for uninspired filmmaking. Setting aside the movies (like the original Cloverfield) that are just a little too polished to convince as something shot by an ordinary observer, there are plenty of digital horror cheapies that turn the constraints of the format into advantages. The recent Unfriended, for example, commits to its laptop gimmick so thoroughly that it practically invents a new kind of movie. And films like the first REC and the second V/H/S utilize the limited vantage of the camera lens to harrowing effect, locking the audience into a terrifying tunnel vision. Still, the best case one could make for found-footage, at least as a tool for formal invention, is probably the Paranormal Activity series. These are movies that rely almost entirely on technique to generate scares. They teach us how to watch them and then diabolically exploit that education.

It’s hard to talk about the franchise without also mentioning its plainest antecedent, the most influential and effective of all found-footage horror films, The Blair Witch Project. Like that divisive modern classic, the original Paranormal Activity privileges suggestion over graphic violence, casts unknowns to deliver improvised dialogue (the better to sell the verité conceit), makes extensive use of offscreen space and sounds, and unfolds over a series of days, the supernatural danger exponentially increasing. Both movies were shot in about a week for less than $30,000, and the record-breaking profitability of both inspired waves of imitators, with Paranormal Activity recharging a found-footage trend that was starting to wane by 2009, when it received its belated (and very successful) theatrical release.

To some, that first film, directed by Oren Peli, looks like nothing more than a reskinned knockoff, moving Blair Witch out of the woods of Maryland and into the residential “safety” of California. But Paranormal Activity is its own monster: Where its celebrated predecessor plays on a primal fear of the great outdoors, Peli’s movie entertains the irrational thoughts provoked by the normal noises a house makes in the dead of night. Establishing the basic plot template for the entire series, the film introduces Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston), a young couple convinced that their new San Diego home is haunted. (Smartly, Peli drops in on the two after the spooky stuff has already started, rather than try to explain why cameras are rolling from the beginning of their ordeal.) Katie claims to have been terrorized by this spirit when she was a child, but Micah wants proof, so he sets up a camera in their bedroom, hoping to catch it in the act. But being documented only seems to make the apparition angrier and angrier, its tactics escalating night to night, until…

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More than most found-footage movies, Paranormal Activity commits itself to verisimilitude, adopting a relative uneventfulness. Though there’s definitely a structure, Peli does a good job making the scenes of Micah and Katie just shooting the shit seem like actual home-movie footage. (It helps that the actors are fairly natural and have a believable romantic rapport.) This mundane hangout vibe is interrupted, of course, by the nightly visits, characterized by the nifty collection of lo-fi effects—mysterious shadows, rippling sheets, slamming doors—Peli employs throughout. Even these start fairly mundane, however, which is a big part of the movie’s plan of attack: The early scares are so subtle and almost imperceptible that they seem less like cinematic tricks than those videos and photographs of “real” hauntings you can find online.

Peli’s true innovation, however, is the adoption of the fixed camera, a device that allows him to play brilliantly with repetition, expectation, and escalation. The movie returns over and over again to the same static shot of Micah and Katie sleeping, the open bedroom doorway leading into an abyss of darkness. Because the layout of the room never changes, the viewer learns to study the frame for something amiss—the ghostly presence invading this safe domestic space. And because the titular activity gets a little more intense every night, we know the second that the film cuts back to that familiar composition that this scare is going to be worse than the last one. It creates an almost Pavlovian chill, the kind that can pass through murmurs and gasps in a crowded theater.

The Paranormal Activity franchise, inevitable from the minute the original started drawing huge crowds, offers variations on that simple but sophisticated formal strategy. Like most horror sequels, the subsequent films up the ante, though not in all the usual ways: Each is nearly as (profitably, frugally) small as the first, and rather than increase the body count or gore quotient, they introduce new technological wrinkles. Paranormal Activity 2, which reveals the parallel troubles of Katie’s sister and her family, multiplies the camera count by a factor of six, so that there are now several angles in several parts of the house—a whole surveillance system. The third film, a prequel that rewinds back to the late ’80s to reveal the sisters’ haunted childhood, puts a primitive video cam on an oscillating fan, increasing the franchise’s visual vocabulary immensely with the mere addition of a pan. In part four, some teenage neighbors deploy laptops, smartphones, and a motion detection device courtesy of the Xbox. And in the fifth (and supposedly final) installment, Paranormal Activity enters the third dimension with a custom camera that allows the new homeowners to literally see the spirits, making the intangible tangible.

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Some of these additions work better than others. The second film, directed by Tod Williams (The Door In The Floor), is basically a slightly nosier remake of the first, and its gimmick isn’t quite an improvement: In the original, the stasis of that single composition makes you feel weirdly helpless, as though you’re paralyzed in one spot, unable to intervene; cutting from angle to angle feels, by comparison, like an escape, and it relieves Williams of some of his responsibility to really work the frame. And while Paranormal Activity 4 gets some decent tension out of the webcam, with characters’ faces obstructing our view of the room behind them, the film mostly just echoes the tactics of its predecessors. That’s not such a bad thing, admittedly. At least until its later entries, the Paranormal Activity series stays true to its analog ethos, wisely sticking to what works, like stretching out the long, pregnant silence before a big jolt—and sometimes even denying us that jolt, which only increases the suspense.

Maybe part four doesn’t reach its full potential because its directors, Catfish duo Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, expended all their best ideas on the previous installment. Scene for scene, Paranormal Activity 3 may be the scariest of the series, in no small part because of that aforementioned fan-cam. Panning back and forth across the room manufactures a nerve-jangling game of peekaboo, turning the area just out of frame into a great unknown and torturing us with the dread of what might be occupying the empty space when the camera finishes its rotation. That’s not the film’s only trick: For the nighttime footage of the two girls in their room, Joost and Schulman reverse the angle of the original’s bedroom cam, so that it’s facing inward instead of outward—an ingenious choice that gets the imagination working overtime, trying to fathom what might be on the other side of the tripod, looking in on these slumbering children.

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Very curiously, the series bends over backwards to make sure each of its individual entries fit into an overarching continuity. Because, yeah, what people really like about the Paranormal Activity movies are their richly developed narratives. It’s all part of the franchise’s slightly endearing insistence on playing fair, which extends to the obligatory, convenient explanations as to why there are so many cameras lying around. (Oh, the father’s a wedding photographer! Oh, the family had a break in and decided to turn their home into the Big Brother house!) The focus on crafting connective tissue between each Activity also results in a lot of highly unnecessary, convoluted mythology. By the last sequel, a simple haunted house yarn has been blown out into a vast conspiracy involving covens, cults, real-estate scams, and time travel. All that mumbo jumbo breaks a cardinal rule of horror: Don’t over-explain the monster.

Thankfully, the plotting rarely interferes with the bump-in-the-dark thrills. These movies may be as rigidly formulaic as any slasher series—they invariably start and end the same way—but that formula can be immensely satisfying. In fact, it’s when the films deviate too far from the blueprint sketched by the original that they tend to lose their way. Shot between the fourth and fifth entries, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones attempted to create a spin-off franchise, targeted specifically to Latino moviegoers. (Don’t worry, they tie it into the others. They always tie it in!) But by ditching the locked-in surveillance camera gimmick of its predecessors in favor of a generic handheld approach, The Marked Ones ends up looking like any old unbranded found-footage cheapie. At least it served the valuable function of demonstrating, by comparison, what’s special about the Paranormal series proper.

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The final installment, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, is no great shakes either. Even the really good Paranormal Activity films tend to lose steam in their final minutes, when the prerogative to finally visualize the threat—to provide some payoff after all that build—possesses them like an ornery demon. (This trend began with the cheap stinger Paramount forced on Peli after it snatched up his film for distribution; it reached its zenith with the reasonably exciting, season-of-the-witch climax of part three.) But the whole premise of The Ghost Dimension is that it finally chills with all that implied horror shit and answers the burning question of what the poltergeists really look like. Less than chilling answer: floating masses of ethereal snot. It’s totally demystifying—a stereoscopic betrayal of the series’ guiding philosophy that what you can’t see is often much scarier than what you can.

Anyway, who needs a snarling demon face or a coven of witches or a giant, spooky loogie (seriously, they couldn’t have come up with a better raw personification of evil?) when you have the singular pleasure of trying to spot the supernatural interloper faster than the people sitting next to you in a darkened auditorium? For movies shot on commercial-grade digital to look like family video diaries, Paranormal Activity and its sequels demand to be seen on the big screen with a large, receptive crowd, through which currents of excitement and fear and recognition can flow like electricity. They’re communal experiences, and they tend to work on a whole audience the same way because of their commitment to milking their much-maligned format for all the goosebumps it’s worth. No wonder people keep going to see found-footage movies, despite the consensus public opinion that they totally suck: One night with the fan-cam is worth a hundred shakycam pretenders.

Final ranking:
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
Paranormal Activity (2009)
Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)
Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)
Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015)

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