Hello g33ks, m33ks and anyone who like me has a guilty pleasure in enjoying the found footage genre. Paranormal Activity has supplanted the Saw series as a Halloween time tradition for not only me and my friends but seemingly all of America. The genre of found footage films has come a long way since The Last Broadcast (1998) and The Blair Witch Project (1999). Although not just relegated to horror (Gang Tapes, Zero Day, Cloverfield, Redacted) by purporting to be a form of documentary these films can be more engaging due to crossing a psychological barrier generally set by an audience when entering a movie theatre. If horror movies are the roller coasters of the amusement park that is all of filmdom, then the found footage genre is the claustrophobic indoor, invisible track, added psychological terror coaster. The one that scares even the seasoned riders because it shakes a little more, flips a little more, is too dark to see, or pretends to end much earlier than it actually does while setting things on fire. When made correctly you become attached to the characters in found footage films because you’re seeing things through their eye view. Some time soon the head mounted video camera will become more common place and the only argument against what makes found footage films work will go away. (Why would they carry a camera everywhere, etc, blah blah?)
Paranormal Activity was a humongous hit when it arrived in 2009 even though it was actually finished in 2007. Its a film that garnered huge word of mouth praise from city to city where it was previewed at free unannounced screenings. I recall attempting to get into one of these screenings in New York City in ’09. I had just taken Lily Stitches to see Zombieland at an advanced screening (3 weeks early) for her birthday and was going to surprise her with a PA screening she didn’t even know about. We took a five minute walk to Pomme Frittes in the Village, met up with a couple friends and walked to the Village East Theatre. We then saw THE LINE which stretched 2 NYC blocks … This screening was totally unannounced, and we arrived 2.5 hours early. It was a secret press screening in a small theatre where they were going to give away the extra seats to anyone who knew. After seeing the number of reporters entering the theatre Lily and I left, our friends stayed in line and 3 hours later they texted to say they didn’t get in. The thing is, everyone in line was AMPED. We couldn’t find a single person who’d seen the thing but they all spoke to someone online who had. Or they saw it on some movie site, and it made them excited. No one was saying things you hear at a lot of public screenings like, “eh free movie”. Later, a friend sent me a screener of an earlier version of the film from when it was up for sale. It featured the original sad ending Oren Peli filmed (the one in the theatre was suggested by Steven Spielberg apparently … there’s also the one that was only screened once for an audience and is on the Home Video Release). After seeing this cut I went to see it in a theatre and the little nuanced differences were fun but the crowd I saw it with was also loving every second of the experience.
Why does this series work so well? Because people want to see it in a theatre, with a loud raucous crowd and shriek their heads off. Paranormal Activity has become a group experience and with a $54 million estimated opening weekend (Largest grossing opening for a horror film, ever) we can be certain the public’s appetite for this series will be fed further next year. Especially considering that box office is down, when a film is a huge hit like this we can be sure that the studios will keep low budget high grossing films coming.
Now after all that the question becomes how good is this third installment and should they even bother to make a fourth PA movie? Well, to put it succinctly, PA3 is a fun terrifying group movie going experience. Gentlemen, if you’re like me and love nothing more than going to a horror movie with a lady friend and having her jump into your seat (as Lily Stitches did in PA2) or having your arm scarred with claw marks from her nails (as Lily did in PA3) then this will be a fantastic film for you. For those who are unfamiliar or need a refresher on the series each installment in the franchise moves back further into the past. We start with the haunting of Katie and Micah in PA, in PA2 we see that haunting began 2 months earlier at her sister Kristi’s home before moving on to her. In PA3 we go back into their childhood in 1988. This is a story that neither of the women can remember and it shows that the origins of their demonic curse go back quite a long time into their past.
One of the reasons these films work so well is that we can feel a connection to these people in watching what appear to be traditional home movies. In the first installment, Micah just bought a camera and had to haul it everywhere, in the second film there was a digital home security network to provide better coverage. In this third film the characters have to deal with hulking video cassette recorders and that means two of the cameras are placed on stationary tripods in bedrooms and the third is put on a modified rotating tripod with a 12 second pan of two different rooms. When I say that at certain points the filmmakers gleefully revel in using what appears to be a miniscule amount of time when nothing scary is happening, and then milk it when the horror starts, I mean it. This is one of those things that pull the audience’s strings and keeps them hooked for scare after scare.
At the end of this film, we find that there is more for this family to fear than just an invisible demon. Its a game changer for the series because we may now know why Kristi and Katie are cursed and what the demon is after. It leads to a series of excellent scares that round out to an ending that just makes me uncomfortable to think about. If you liked the previous editions go for it, if you’re new to the series check out the first two on Netflix instant and make it a triple feature. If you’ve never enjoyed the others there’s nothing here that will change your mind except that there is some semblance of motivation for the demonic presence in this film.
That said, I was hoping for a final concluding installment in this third edition and instead I got what appears to be an opening for more films. I will be back next year but eventually the world grew tired of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Scream, and Saw … Paranormal Activity would do well to remember not to outlive its welcome. Scream came back after a hiatus and found itself a revived franchise … maybe Paranormal should walk away while it is still beloved.
That said the found footage genre is strong. Coming next year is a film I’m highly excited for and slightly angry I didn’t think of on my own, Chronicle. I’ve attached the trailer below. Leave comments on this, your thoughts on Paranormal Activity and the found footage genre as a whole.
– Mr. Khon