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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sean Kelly

Revisiting the Paranormal Activies

Tonight in 20 cities around the world, voted by fans via Twitter, there will be special free advance screenings of Paranormal Activity 3, prior to the film's full release on Friday. Toronto made it into the top 20 and I decided to check the screening out.

Over the last few days, I rewatched the first two films and I thought that it would be fun to write some in-depth opinions on both, as well as some preliminary thoughts about the third film.  I go into SPOILER territory in this post, so you've been warned.

Paranormal Activity - read my original review
We shall start off with the first film, which I still consider one of the best horror films to come out in recent years.

I rewatched the film last Saturday, which was probably my fourth overall viewing of the film.  Of course, by this point, the "jump scares" in this film aren't really as effective as they used to be.  However, I thought the film still worked on a psychological level.

There is something about the intimacy of a single camera and only two central characters that helps with the effectiveness of the film.  I personally find that it's scarier when you have the camera stationed in the bedroom, focused on the two characters, and the light in the hallway suddenly turns on.  Having big scares that cause you to jump are nice (and there are plenty of those in this film), however I find that it's the little things that are more unnerving.

A scene that I still consider the creepiest in the film, doesn't involve people being dragged or thrown by an invisible force.  Instead, it is a static shot of a Ouija board, while the two characters are out of the house.  Not only does the cursor begin moving on its own (which was expected), but the board itself lights on fire.  This spontaneous combustion was quite unexpected the first time I saw the film and, as such, it was quite a frightening sight.  An early scene of the character Katie sitting in a near-catatonic state on a swing was also quite unnerving, as well as the slight vocal manipulation used later in the film to indicate that Katie was possessed.

Being advertised as a "found footage film," Paranormal Activity sort of requires viewers to have a true belief in the paranormal (or at least pretend they do).  This fact is definitely true for me, which is probably why I find the film so terrifying.  Also, in relation to the found footage aspect of the film, there almost always seemed to be a reason for the camera to be on.  It is established right at the start of the film that the camera is being used to document the activity and, for the most part, it avoids the "Blair Witch effect" of leaving the camera on for every single thing that happens during the day.  Of course, the main character of Micah is still slightly obsessive with his camera use, which only helps to establish him as a somewhat naive fellow that doesn't take the haunting too seriously (which comes to play later in the film).

One thing I do appreciate about the first Paranormal Activity is that it doesn't go out of it's way to explain what's going on.  I really do like the "less is more" philosophy when it comes to horror films.  The film has an exposition-filled scene early on that helps to establish the nature of the hauntings - Katie has been haunted since childhood and the presence is more likely a demon than a ghost.  However, the film just leaves it at that and our imaginations are left to fill in the blanks.  In fact, my biggest criticism of the sequel, which I will talk about in a minute, is that the screenwriters felt compelled to explain everything.

Paranormal Activity 2 - read my original review
Paranormal Activity was a true definition of a sleeper hit.  It slowly expanded over the course of two months, using the excellent "Demand It" campaign, and ended up being a #1 hit by Halloween.  Of course, when a film is successful, it automatically means to the studio that there has to be a sequel and Paranormal Activity 2 was put into immediate production.

The film is actually a prequel and it focuses on the family of Katie's sister Kristi.  I rewatched the film last night, on Netflix, for the first time since I saw it in theatres last Halloween.  I skipped out on buying the DVD release, since I was not really happy at some of the plot revelations in the film, which somewhat lessened the impact of both this film and the previous.

The first of these revelations was that the demonic haunting was not random.  It's revealed that the family made a deal with the demon in the 1930s and it will haunt them until they give up their first born son, who is the true target of the demon throughout the film.  I do have to say that it was definitely scarier when there was no known motivation for the demon.

There also many other little things that annoyed me.  First there is a burnt photo of Katie as a child.  This was a photo that supposedly burnt in a childhood fire and it was scary when it showed up in the first film.  However, in this film the photo is found intact in a photo album and it is later burned by one of the characters.  It's still somewhat scary how the photo ends up at Katie's house, but it no longer has the same impact.

Then there is also the very fact that the "solution" for the hauntings in this film was to pass the demon from Kristi to Katie using a blessed cross.  That further diminishes the supposed randomness the the activity in the first film, since the demon didn't truly want Katie - it was just transferred to her by her sister's husband.

There's also the multi-camera set-up.  I found the activity was not as scary when you have cameras that are able to show anything that's happening as it occurs and I definitely preferred the intimate single-camera set-up of the original.  This multi-camera set-up also makes the film feel much more like a movie, rather than a home video that was found after the events.  This film features a lot more filming for the sake of filming and, as such, the film seems a lot more conventional (there are even end credits this time).

Enough criticisms. What did I like about Paranormal Activity 2?  There are definitely some unique scares to this film, though they mostly occur late into the film.  I thought that a train toy that mysteriously moved from one end of the room to the other was especially creepy.  A sudden daytime activity, involving all the cabinets in the kitchen opening at once, was also quite effective.

The larger budget allowed for a lot more physical interactions with the demon and I thought that an extended scene that has Kristi being dragged throughout the house was quite well done.  Also a later scene of a possessed Kristi disappearing from a room and reappearing behind her stepdaughter was also quite creepy.

Overall, while I do prefer the original film over this one, I did find myself a little less annoyed at the revelations on my second viewing.  Who knows, I may end up finally getting the DVD.

Paranormal Activity 3
What are my preliminary thoughts about the third film in the series?

Well, I am quite intrigued with how the film is going back to the events of Katie and Kristi's childhood, which has been referenced in both the previous films.  I'm looking forward to the depictions of events that we were previously told about, such as the mysterious fire, as well as something happening to the girls' mother.

I'm curious about how they continue the found-footage aspect of the series.  The film better have a decent reason to why two little girls are being constantly videotaped.  However, at least it looks like the film will be back to the single-camera format of the original, which is a good thing in my opinion.

Even though I am planning to see the film for the advance screening tonight, in fairness to the film, I won't post my thoughts on it until after the film's regular release on Friday.  However, I'm still looking forward to seeing it (even though I'm secretly hoping this is the last sequel they make).

Sean Kelly

About Sean Kelly -

Sean Patrick Kelly is a self-described ├╝ber-geek, who has been an avid film lover for all his life. He graduated from York University in 2010 with an honours B.A. in Cinema and Media Studies and he likes to believe he knows what he’s talking about when he writes about film (despite occasionally going on pointless rants).