Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Paranormal Actrilogy

Horror movies have a habit of spinning out of control when the term 'franchise' is mentioned. I mean, look at Saw, Friday The 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street. They all have seven movies or more and the sad truth of the matter is that most people will not want to watch past the fourth or fifth one. I mean has anyone seen Jason X? There is little parallel to the fear that reaches deep inside any horror fanatic when it is announced that there will be a series of films following a successful horror. Today, we look at one example of this in recent years: The Paranormal Activity franchise.

What follows are three reviews, one of each of the current Paranormal Activity films, and they will be chucked full of spoilers, so if you want to know nothing about the plot or, more importantly, the scares, just scroll to the end for spoiler free reviews. Right, let's get started.

Paranormal Activity

The film that started it all. Released originally on a tiny budget in 2007 and was almost unheard of until 2009 when Paramount picked it up for general release and it exploded. Oren Peli, who shot the film in ten days in his own home, could never have predicted the success and profit that his small, handheld horror would have. With enough actors to count on one hand, there had to be some secret to the success...

Bonus points for the first movie because
Katie Featherston is beautiful

One could argue that it is simplicity that slay the industrial beast of cinema. With only two actors for the majority of the film and a plot, if it can so be called, that a five year old could follow, the film appeals to a wide audience, horror fan or not. What does the demon want? Katie. That's all. Micah and Katie don't try any whichcraft or exorcism, they just get terrorised. And then the hauntings. Playing with the unknown is possible the simplest, yet hardest, horror technique. How do you make someone scared of something that isn't there without being too explicit about it? Magically appearing footprints are a good start, along with other things that appear out of the corner of your eye. The audience question what they're seeing and, in doing so, get sucked into Micah and Katie's world and experience the same scares.

Or perhaps it's the avoidance of over used horror clich├ęs. Hauntings in the day time and genuine human emotion rather than rash, night time decisions provide something fresh on the screen. And it is not all down hearted like a lot of horrors; even when things get more intense, Micah provides comic relief. While it does suffer from being slow and losing tension in the majority of the day time footage, the fresh and simple perspective on ghosts is something that  cinema was craving. Horror fans went crazy for it and horror 'haters' went to see it in order to say, 'Well, it wasn't really a good movie...' But the biggest shock to all movie fans is that this was a good movie as well as a good horror. It ticked the boxes for both categories. The real question is: did the sequels?

Paranormal Activity 2

The first sequel is a lot bigger in every sense than its predecessor. It delves into the life of Katie's sister, Kristi, and her family after the birth of her first son, Hunter, and happens only weeks before the events of the first movie. Jumping straight into the reviewing, this film is no where near the first one in terms of quality. In fact, it is pretty awful. Think back to what worked about the first one: the simple plot, the combination of subtle hauntings and explicit demonic activity. Evidently, the writers of this instalment threw those out of the window and decided on a far too complicated plot and next to no hauntings at all. 

Looks like I wasn't the only one to doze off...

Well, I say too complicated a plot, but really it is a very satisfactory plot. One that explains more of the demons intentions and why the events in the first movie happen. And yes, it is completely needless. However, its biggest flaw is the terrible timing. Nothing even remotely important is mentioned until half an hour in (and even that is more important for the third movies plot) and nothing particularly scary happens until about 50 minutes into the movie. That scare, a shadow moving over Ali while she sleeps, is followed by nothingness for a bit, unless you count terrible writing and horrid characters as 'something'. Ali leaves the house, while baby sitting, and the door slams behind her. Rather than doing anything logical, she wanders off until her parents get home. And this still isn't the most annoying her character gets. Her disobedience, rudeness and laughing at others will encourage nothing but the hope that the demon kills her.

In fact, the only character worth a damn (minus the dog) is the dad, but even he is completely blind to the events happening around him and doesn't trust his family. The other major flaw with the plot is that the main point -that there's a curse from the grandmother on the first born male in her family, Hunter - is so irrationally jumped to after an hour or so on Google. No one even suspects that there's another explanation. And after all this, the family is safe. Good. A nice wholesome ending. Wait... Nevermind. The entire point of being able to transfer the curse is pointless because, as well as killing your sister in law, you also kill your own family. Smooth. Not scary, badly written, and completely unsatisfactory.

Paranormal Activity 3

A prequel that shoots back much further than a few weeks. We're now in Kristi and Katie's childhood. This time the writers have remembered what made the first film work and used it and built on it. Something that is completely understandable with a bigger budget and an ability to use larger special effects. So it turns out that Katie and Kristi, their mother, Julie, and their step-father, Dennis, were haunted, rather violently, as kids. They never talk about it though, even when it comes back in the other two movies. The glaring issue with this film, and the second, is everyone's ignorance of the issues. Everyone has cameras, but only Micah in the first movie really checks it. Well, that's not true. Dennis checks his footage daily. But whenever he tries to show it to Julie, she ignores him. Then she dies. And he dies. Well played, Julie. Four for you. 

The ghost normally stops being scary by the third movie...
But this is a new low.

But don't get me wrong, the third instalment is a massive step up on the second. The plot is simpler, the scares are both bigger but some are more subtle, and stuff actually happens. The basic plot, is there's a ghost or a demon. Kristi talks to it and calls it Toby. Scary stuff happens. Easy right? Well, until they throw in the side plot to tie the films together. Something about a covenant of woman who marry girls to demons who take the first born male. (See the link now?) This side plot is actually the beginning of a downfall for the otherwise fantastic ending. After Julie goes to check on her mother and doesn't return, Dennis goes investigating and finds an empty house. A shadow in the window when there turns out to be no one there gets you to the edge of your seat. And then he opens a door and there's a load of crazy old ladies who chase him. Honestly, it seemed like it was plucked from another movie completely. Then Julie's body is floating, dead. Then Kristi shows up and they hide in a cupboard, then Katie scares the pants off of you. Then Julie's mum turns up, Dennis gets broken, and Julie's mum walks off with Kristi, Katie, and, apparently, Toby.

Yes, that was a massive spoiler, but I needed to point out how ridiculous the ending became after such a tense promising start. The best thing about Paranormal Activity 3 is the ghost activity. Some of it is fantastic. There's a sheet, like a child dressed as a ghost, which suddenly collapses. The entire kitchen lifts into the ceiling while off camera only to slam down with perfect timing (something the second film REALLY lacked) and a mysterious figure appears behind Dennis but only briefly. And those are just the more obvious ones. There's the fast shadow that shoots past doors and Katie skipping down the corridor at night. And there's something great in the build up. Kristi talking to the ghost and playing with him creates some kind of suspense that is difficult to create. Though 'Toby' seems very fickle. He attacks Katie and protects Kristi and then later it switches without any real reason. That's too simple a plot. Elaborate, please. 

Spoiler Free Below:

A quick word about all three movies. The camera work is a big thing with this series, obviously, being shot from handheld cameras. The first movie had a single camera which caught just enough to intrigue the audience, but not enough to scare them silly. The second one caught far too much. Most night time scenes were five minutes of nothing but different views of the house. It was like watching Big Brother at three in the morning. The third one got the cameras right. It gave purpose to having the handheld, unlike the second, and he developed his filming as the hauntings progressed. He started with one camera, switched to two, and then ended with three, the last on a neat swivel so that it could catch a panoramic view, and also created large blind spots for a few seconds. This captured just the right amount of ghost activity. It's a pity that the story wasn't better. Will the fourth one get it right? And let me know your opinions on anything Paranormal Activity related and especially what you think of the upcoming one.

Paranormal Activity 1: For the best storyline, a fresh look at horrors, the best characters, and actually being scary, I reward you with:

Paranormal Activity 2: For terrible in almost every sense, but still managing to make me care about the dog, take this petty prize:

Paranormal Activity 3: For best special effects, camera work, and ghost activity, you should be the best. However, your plot lost its way too often and you ruined a great ending. Take this:

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