There are movies that take off like a wildfire with audiences. Suddenly everyone needs to see the new shocking film. It happens every few years. I remember back in early 2009 a buddy of mine messaged me saying he just saw this pre-screening of this new horror movie, Paranormal Activity, that scared the piss out of him. The message started with “I know you don’t like found footage films but…..” That was where I was lost.
Its really no big secret my dislike and mistrust in the style of storytelling of found footage films. In fact, when I told some people that I was going to watch these films, they looked at me funny, never expecting me to actively seek out. While there are some that I like (Willow Creek, Chronicle, The Blair Witch Project) most are often held back by the constraints that come with this type of film making. So, Paranormal Activity eventually came out, became a huge hit, spawned five sequels and countless parodies. So when it came time for me to do another LTTP I figured I would go for the series I have been avoiding for almost seven years. That and the triple pack was wicked cheap at the used record store.
As much as I don’t like found footage films, I loved movies about hauntings, especially when they have great sound design. I’ll admit, the first film had my attention because of this. The two main characters were well acted and didn’t fall into the realm of annoyance. The spectacles with the hauntings were wicked good, utilizing some great sound design to evoke a lot of tension. When it comes to why the characters are filming, a pretty big issue I have with most found footage films, this one address it pretty well. In fact, all three do a good job of giving good reason behind filming, even the first film’s characters have a mental breakdown about the cameras. The film is a great exercise in patience and drawing out as much time as possible as most of the film is basically B-Roll, but this works to its advantage and we are left staring at a blank space for long periods of time. Honestly the build up of the hauntings and the back story are really good until the very end.
These films have a very tough time with their endings and the first one is the prime example. Didn’t they film 4-5 different endings because they didn’t know how to wrap it up? I’ll admit, Micah being thrown at the camera only to have it knocked down revealing Katie was great. Even her crawling around, sniffing his body and then looking at the camera was great. What wasn’t great, that fucking CGI face at the very end. For a movie that plays out on how realistic it is, that one CGI effect killed the ever living fuck out of it. After an hour and a half of being drawn into this movie I was taken out faster then someone saying Bloody Mary in the mirror. Honestly, it’s my only big complaint. The film isn’t a masterpiece, but it does a great job of building tension in all the right places and is a fun ride. Luckily, the series just gets better from there.
Paranormal Activity 2
Paranormal Activity 2 does exactly what sequels are meant to do, build upon the original. Boy did they ever. More cameras and good reason as to why those cameras were set up, increased number and intensity level of the hauntings, adding more characters including a dog and a baby, and all around improved on the formula from the first film. PA2 follow’s Katie’s sister and her family, with the timeline starting before the events of the first film, though the final act takes place during and after the first film’s timeline. This choice to continue the story through a semi-prequel works perfectly for expanding what little story was presented with the first film and even made the events of the first more terrifying, showing that it wasn’t a random haunting. While most sequels fail because they expand and explain too much of what happened with the first, PA2 does a fantastic job of expanding without telling too much, all the while being its own film.
While PA2 does a great job of continuing what make the original great and fixing a lot of what didn’t work, it still suffered from a baffling good/bad ending. Basically Kristi becomes possessed by the demon and has a kind of explained exorcism that pushes the demon onto Katie (setting up the first film). The movie then cuts to shortly after the events of the first film where Katie has since become the demon possessed version of The Terminator. Seriously, what the fuck was with her just snapping the husband’s head? This moment was almost as bad as the original’s CGI demon face. It’s quickly followed by a confrontation between Katie and Kristi where Kristi begs for her sons life before being thrown at the camera in the room. Once again, the series does a great job of pulling me into the film only to pull me out of it again in the final moments. PA2 is still a better film than the first one, it was just disappointing seeing it suffer the same fate of the original when it came to the ending.
Paranormal Activity 3
Paranormal Activity 3 is a prequel to the prequel, because we needed more explanation on why this family is fucked. It follows when Kristi and Katie were young and were first haunted by Tobi, the demon from the first two films. It takes place in the 80’s and is “shot on VHS.” Ok, let just get this out of the way. It was not shot on VHS, it was shot in HD with VHS filters, which the film pretty much completely drops about fifteen minutes into the film. While I respect the filmmakers going for and embracing the aesthetic, I wish they kept it going for the entirety of the film. Or perhaps use the format to their advantage. Warps and tracking would have been a fucking great touch if used properly at the right moments. But I digress.
PA3 proves to be the most solid film of the three. The tension, motivation of the characters, and creativity behind it the found footage format are creative. One of my favorite parts is when one of the main characters jerry-rigs a VHS camcorder to a fan so it can move back and forth. This not only adds movement to some of the shots, but is also used in ways to show/not show scares. They even fixed their issues with ending with a truly creepy and confusing ending. All in all, PA3 is my favorite out of the three films.
The Paranormal Activity films did not change my distrust with found footage films, but I had a lot of fun with them. They act as great pieces of tension and seem like they would be a hell of a good time with a large crowd. Often I found myself immersed in them with their great use of sound, long shots of nothing and slow tension building. The jumps scares can be predictable at times and the CGI takes me out of it, but when the frights hit they land very well. The world building within the films is fantastic and I felt pretty satisfied with the story as a whole. I don’t really feel a need to seek out the following sequels yet. Mostly with Ghost Dimension, the idea of sitting through a 3D found footage film both angers me and make my stomach upset. I don’t regret not seeing these films sooner, but I do wish I caught at least one of them in theaters to have the experience of seeing it with a large crowd. Overall, the triple pack I bought was worth the $7.50 I paid at the used record store.