I have a thing for horror movies. All horror movies. I love the cheesy 21st-century remakes of the old classics, even (especially) if they’re produced by Michael Bay. I love stomach-churning zombie gore and cheap jump scares, and I love predicting who’s going to die first in the first five minutes of a slasher film.
But more than anything, I love to sit in a dark theater and watch a really, really good horror movie.
I always tried not to dwell on this much, though, because it hardly ever happens. It’s like how you know you’d really like to be dating a handsome, sweet guy who grills the world’s best hamburgers and loves the second season of Star Trek: The Original Series, but you know that will probably never happen, so you settle for what you can get. We always kept ourselves from getting our hopes up for great horror, because we knew that tension and subtlety had been rapidly draining out of Hollywood like the blood from a chainsaw-severed jugular.
Then, Blair Witch happened. And say what you will about that movie, but it was a game changer. That movie looked at the growing trend of sex and drugs and big-budget gore, and said, “you know what? No. I’m going to be something else entirely. I’m going to be dark, and gritty, and have likable characters and camera work that makes you sick, and I am barely going to show you a damn thing that goes on, and it is going to stress you out.”
And boy, did it. Like the shadowy, half-remembered images from a nightmare, this movie’s monster never quite materialized onscreen—but the fear was palpable. Many made fun of the lack of action and the shaky camera, but those who let themselves experience it fully felt a kind of stark exhilaration that something like Jason X could never hope to replicate.
Blair Witch Project kicked off a new genre of sparse, pseudo-realistic, “found footage” horror. And then the Paranormal Activity franchise perfected it. Three times.
I went to see the third movie last night, all alone. Afterwards, I went straight to an IHOP to type up this review. No reason. It’s not like I was scared to go home to my dark apartment or anything.
Refresher course! In the original Paranormal Activity, we see the young couple Katie and Micah being haunted by a mysterious, demonic force. Micah has the idea of tracking any suspicious activity by placing several cameras all over the house. This device defines the “homemade” cinematography of all three films—static or handheld cameras, nothing but jump-cut editing, simple practical effects, and absolutely no musical score to provide guidance or catharsis. Through this footage, we eventually find out that Katie had a past with the demon, and that it wants more than anything to possess her for some unknown, nefarious purpose.
Paranormal Activity 2 is a kind of prequel / companion to the first, filling in the backstory by focusing on Katie’s sister Kristi. It turns out that Kristi’s new baby boy might be the true focus of the demon, who (like many mystical beings) has a preoccupation with firstborn sons. How patriarchal of it.
Finally, the third and most recent installment takes us way back, to Kristi’s and Katie’s early childhood. It all starts with the same standard (yet infinitely creepy) signs of a haunting: lights turning on and off, doors swinging closed on their own, that sort of thing. Because the girls’ mother has a boyfriend who videotapes weddings for a living, naturally his first instinct is to set up cameras and film everything.
From there on out, it’s all pretty familiar territory—which, in my book, is actually kind of awesome (thought the increasingly-grouchy Roger Ebert does not agree with me). Paranormal Activity 3 doesn’t feel the need to pump Hollywood steroids into this nice, clean formula; instead, the franchise has the good sense to stick with what works.
One thing that has improved since the first one, though, is the script. While the original writer and director Oren Peli went with extremely naturalistic and inelegant dialogue (which felt very real, but also reeeeally repetitive and frustrating), Christopher Landon’s screenplay for this one has a bit more focus and style. Personally, I’m willing to sacrifice that little shred of realism for a little less of the verbal floundering that weighed the first film down during it’s slower moments.
The device of the time-stamped static cameras continues to be brilliant, because it gets us used to how the rooms in this house look and keeps us hyper-alert to any change or movement. My favorite innovation for this particular installment is the camera that gets hooked up to the base of an oscillating fan, so that it sweeps very slowly back and forth between the kitchen and the living room. And if you can watch that for a few minutes without getting completely wound up with nervous tension, you are stronger than I am.
So, by the time the movie is over, we’ve spent so much time peering into the darkened corners of this house that we feel like we live there ourselves. This could be why the long, tense stretches of time where we listen to the house make those taunting little bangs and creaks and just wait for something to happen are so effective—like actually sitting up in your bed in the dark, not knowing for sure what woke you up and wondering if that shadow by your closet door has always been there, always been that tall and person-shaped and—
Um, yeah. Anyway. This movie does escalate from the other two by giving us an even clearer picture of the demon’s backstory with Katie’s family. The way little Kristi interacts with the demon—calling him her imaginary friend “Toby”—is a bit too familiar for a horror-savvy audience (Captain Howdy, anyone?). But beyond this one slightly-distracting detail, the two young actresses are very convincing. They seem like real little girls, without veering into the overly-precocious or overly-creepy caricatures that end up in every single movie ever.
I thought the climax, while weaker than the rest of the film (the tension is always scarier than the payoff, anyway), was very well done and handled with admirable restraint. We’re still only left with a suggestion of what was really going on, which only becomes slightly less inscrutable when the other two films are taken into account. The franchise so far forms a pretty well-structured mythology, while still leaving a lot of the mystery intact. I really appreciate this, especially since most current filmmakers seem to be allergic to ambiguity of any kind.
Bottom line: I’m a huge fan of Paranormal Activity, and I was not even a little disappointed by this one. I think if you go into these movies ready to check your cynicism at the door and be immersed in the anxious atmosphere, you’ll be rewarded by that real, heart-hammering, exhausting fear that will spike your adrenaline and kind of make you feel like you need a cigarette to wind down afterwards.
Every hardcore horror fan should give this franchise a try, because if we don’t throw our support behind these types of films, we might be left with nothing but direct-to-video Halloween sequels to fill the void. And that would be really scary.