Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Demon Gets Its Due: The Paranormal Activity Trilogy


So it comes to pass that what was once seen as a novelty work around for no-budget filmmakers to create effective, rudimentary, and in many ways experimental exercises in horror now reaches that divide where the more conventional world of franchise horror film oozes into the frame. Which isn't to say that this was unexpected, but in the challenge that comes with straining out a singular premise based on the technology available, it's virtually inevitable that their verite element would be compromised for the sake of sequel dollars. And since I was among the thousands who took the brilliantly placed marketing bait of the original hook, line and sinker, part of me knew upon seeing it that Paramount would go out of their way to make sure this become a protracted series of works, all in the name of being the next in the neverending trend of horror being allergic to singular success. Which isn't to say that in today's climate is not understandable with attendance numbers waning, and ticket prices increasing. Anything that is capable of engaging the crowd in new and interesting ways is bound to inspire a repeat. The problem comes when this method is so threadbare simple, that any greater expansion of the conceit invites contrivances and nuances that threaten the foundation of such an idea.

Which is at the essence of what has happened with Paranormal Activity as a franchise. Inevitable perhaps, but a part of the viewer in me can't help but be compelled by things happening in between what has become the films' expected pattern. And even when readers might already be asking the expected "whys" regarding my own interest in this series of films, I have to go ahead and admit that it has been years since a horror franchise has kept me coming back. Having grown up in the heyday of the trend (the 1980s was in many ways the petrie dish by which most of today's film marketing  and creation habits spring from) I have long since ignored most horror movies made to cash in on the success of the original. Especially when the sequels clearly have nothing more to say regarding the myth established, save for a repeat of the same, all the while increasingly wandering away from scares and thematic heft. While the same can be said regarding the PA films, there has also been an interesting set of themes that have sneaked themselves into the mythology.

Themes that help the films work in spite of their minimal nature.

But first, what is the surface mix? The initial hook? What is it about this take on the "found footage" verite subgenre that connects so well with the general public?
For me? Unassuming showmanship.

Particularly when thinking the $15,000 price-tagged original film made in 2007, and released wide in 2010 via purchase from Paramount Pictures, PA's secret weapon resides in the use of drawn out static shots, phantom sounds, and an absorbing lack of polish. It's resourcefulness being the primary element in delivering the scares made for a unique experience in mainstream multiplex horror. Suddenly, the audience was compelled to watch more closely than they had in perhaps decades. Not unlike a Where's Waldo book, or even a Magic Eye Painting, the viewer is required to involve themselves in ways unusual for a modern horror film. A technique perhaps best pioneered historically by the Lumiere brothers..

Since then , as viewer habits, and technique evolve, it has become increasingly more challenging to draw in the senses in ways that deliver a potent shock. Which brings us to the internet age, and perhaps a turning point for the genre in general.

In the years post- The Blair Witch Project, as well as the J-horror boom of the late 90s, a hunger had been growing for more entertaining means of exploring the unexplained, particularly in the realm of low to mid-grade video. In fact, as an extension of the Japanese fascination with ghosts in lieu of the success of such films as Ringu(1997), and Ju-On(1998), variety tv shows began flirting with so-called "found footage" of hauntings, as well as explorations into long spoken of ghost tales.

And as the internet began to gain ground on the international level, it also became prominent to share videos, often claiming to capture moments often inspiring fear and even more fascination. So once online video came to greater maturity with the advent of YouTube, a growing appetite, and openness for found video set the stage for a new type of vernacular that films like Blair Witch, and even Cannibal Holocaust flirted with. Only made more relatable by way of video technology's increased affordability, the last barrier dividing filmmakers and the everyperson has dissolved, making these movies ripe for pilfering.

Now onto the second-level, and this is where it truly piqued my interest.

For those unfamiliar, I had shared a few words regarding the original film. While a part of me admired the achievement, its bare bones nature, not to mention the reliance on a character to act beyond reason almost hurt the film. ( and of course, there's a tacked on scare in the last moment that cheapens a lot of what comes before) And yet despite these small quibbles, I found a lot to like in regards to its view of not only the unknown externally, but also internally.  It turned out that for my money, it was the internal conflict of the film's two leads that made the piece especially effective.

Quick Recap:

Paranormal Activity chronicled the lives of Katie & Micah (using their real names) whom soon after moving into a tract home in the San Diego suburbs, begin experiencing nightly disturbances. Leading Micah, already hooked on capturing life on video, decides to set up a camera on a tripod to capture them while sleeping for what he possibly hopes is a sense of comfort for Katie, who already seems more sensitive to the situation than he is. Over the course of several nights, the disturbances increase in their ferocity, eventually coming to a crescendo when it becomes clear that Micah's doubt has opened a door
 to what is ostensibly a doomed finish.

So what leads me to retain the opinion that the original once again claims more potency over later films, is the underlining notion that despite the American ideal of cohabitation, even in the most secure neighborhood & housing, living with others is fraught with an eternal nihilistic edge. From a universal perspective, security is merely illusory. No togetherness. No understanding. It is the classic "fundamentally alone" perspective that reigns supreme in the original piece. It is made even more evident in the film's original pre-studio version, where Micah and Katie's ending is even more viscerally pronounced. And this is possibly a fear that runs much deeper than any idea regarding malevolent spirits. The real malevolence, being our inability to connect and accept a more realistic view of a universe in perpetual flux.

Not sure if this was what original creator, Oren Peli had in mind, but it is worth considering.

Paranormal Activity 2:

So when it came time to franchise the film by following it up with a quasi-prequel involving the days prior to the events just witnessed, much of the same was employed, which not only expanded the mythology regarding Katie's family, but increased the number of cameras/opportunities to witness another rift between worlds. This time, involving Katie's slightly younger, married sister Kristie, her new husband, Dan, his daughter from a previous marriage, Ali, and most importantly, the newest addition to the family, infant son, Hunter. With a larger, more lavish home, a more diverse cast, and a handy home security video system, its safe to joke that the franchise has leaped beyond credibility right out of the airlock. However, there is enough care in the film's craft and tone that does well to keep the fear potent for those open to the experience. Not to mention a larger, broader thematic target. Just as it becomes easy to question the logic of all the moments captured on video of characters reading up on what could be haunting them via the internet, and reading it aloud to themselves, there are many new takes on the same stretches of eerie quiet once the family takes to bed. The dreaded "Day X: Date and Time" again marks the moments when the audience is asked to look closely before things take their expected turns. The expected bumps and shrieks unfold as before, but it is here that much of what was left vague in the previous film begins to coalesce, implying that the spirit that haunts this family may very well be the product of human desire, and not so much of universal apathy.

And while this may undermine my previous statement regarding the first film, 2's implications regarding two sisters either marrying into money, or loving into it begins to take a sinister turn when one considers the revelations here.

Which is where I bring in a most unexpected thematic bridge to this very writeup:

One of my initial film analysis writeups was regarding the fantasy-comedy favorite, Ghostbusters(1984), in which several down and out scientists, with the assistance of a sarcastic-salesman type, create a revolutionary business model based on age-old superstitions, only to awaken the wrath of generations worth of angry spirits. Upon good-boy character, Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd)s exasperated sadness at having sold an old family home to buy a loan to start this new (potentially fraudulent) business venture, we are in full 1980s zeitgest mode, as the film spins a fun FX-laden comedy regarding the era of Reaganomics, and the potential ruin inherent in its methodology. By the end of the film, Zuul & Gozer are vanquished, and despite all that occurs in the film, we see the classic Ghostbusters logo emblazoned on clearly street-made T-shirts, all while Rick Moranis asks a local New York firefighter who does his taxes. And while this was all in the name of comedy, there is this sneaky element that perhaps helps best inform what Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg's Poltergeist had warned of previously. A deal gone awry, only to incite future ruin by way of forces long neglected by modern pop-ideology and greed.
Actions of the past may very well have paved the lives of both Katie and Kristie, only to secure that a future simply isn't possible for any involved. Made all the more clear by Paranormal Activity 2's unquestionably bleak finale.

So what in the world could a third film- and also a bigger prequel, do for this theme? Well, to be honest, it does what virtually any other mythology building block can do in the horror movie landscape, repeat to mixed success.

Paranormal Activity 3:

In a quick prologue, we are introduced to the revelation as to how a certain item was found inside Katie & Dan's home, prior to the events of the first film. We also witness the dropping off of a box filled with VHS cassettes, many of which chronicle the childhoods of our central characters. Flashing forward to the burgulary that opens 2, we are informed that nothing was stolen amongst the rubble left behind, save for these cassettes. So what 3 will be, is the documented account of events both sisters hinted at in some of the more dramatic moments of the second film. This time, the video is captured by way of their mother, Julie's boyfriend, Dennis, who has his own wedding video and editing business. And once again(or perhaps for the first time), we witness the beginning through the eyes of Kristie & Katie's family, as an imaginary friend turns out to be anything but.

And again, I'm hesitant to grant this anywhere near a typical review as these pieces work less on a traditional level, and demand as such. That said, this installment can easily qualify as the most "movie-like" exercise of the bunch. In fact, many elements here play full well in the pantheon of an older school of horror sequel. To the point that the film begins to blur the line between traditional narrative film and verite-style document. When the piece makes open references to films such as Poltergeist, and even Back To The Future, one knows that we are in a warped mirror vision of reality. And yet, despite this, a good ninety percent of the film succeeds where most 1980s period pieces fall short. Helmed by  Ariel Schulman, and Henry Joost, the minds behind the controversial indie, Catfish, PA3 is as far removed from their dent-making debut as imaginable, but also offers decently unique scares and some truly impressive performances by the young actors playing the sisters, while remaining true to the spirit of the series. In many ways, this could very well have been the kind of film Book Of Shadows would have benefitted being more like: a traditional scare film, with an almost meta spine running through it all.

So naturally, the big question of this film's existence lies in just how Dennis is able to capture hours upon hours of video in the days of EP/SLP mode, and incessant tape changing. (Not to mention lesser quality video-which this film brazenly sidesteps for questionable reasons. There is also a welcome addition into the method involving an oscillating fan that not only made my inner DIY geek smile, but plays havoc with our line of sight.) The further down the rabbit hole we go with the premise, the louder the question of why the camera is there and only grows louder. The crux of the whole film being wholly dependent on how much one is willing to believe in this scenario. So when the expected flooring of the gas taken by the demonic presence reaches it's logical conclusion, the only way to go, is to bring us face to face with...Well...Perhaps it is best not sharing here. But if this franchise has any remaining thematic integrity in store, this is a most appropriate finale, which again supports the 1980s Baby Boomer Curse bridge theory.

The seething anger inherent in the subtext of these films can only remain as fresh as they are if the premise isn't taken beyond this point. There is a cutting, vicious edge to what has been shaped here in regards to our modern culture, and what we are waking up to realize about the generations prior to us. As Schulman and Joost performed an occasionally fun bonus chapter in the tale, taking advantage of whatever limitations the era and budget could provide, and based on the audience's reactions at my screening, it may be best to hoist up anchor and move on. Once the audience catches onto the format, ready to squash it tightly into a  neatly labeled box,  it's time for horror to find new ways to engage and surprise again.


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