Last weekend saw the release of writer-director Christopher Landon's Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, the fifth entry in the highly profitable, highly ingenious discovered-footage horror franchise that began with Oren Peli's 2007 micro-budget original. In his insightful and informative November 2012 blog entry "Return to Paranormalcy", film scholar David Bordwell correctly points out that "the Paranormal Activity franchise is that rare thing: a popular series that stands out by very specific and noticeable uses of film technique." With that in mind, here's a handy guide to the Paranormal Activity story so far:
Paranormal Activity (2009)
Premise: Katie (Katie Featherston) and her husband Micah (Micah Sloat) are bothered by mysterious goings-on in their new home.
Formal innovations: The debut introduces five important formal tropes: time- and date-stamped footage that both organizes the film and charts the increasing malevolence of whatever it is that's out there; unusually static long takes wherein mundane locations and objects grow more ominous and threatening the longer viewers stare at them; anxious, shaky hand-held camera work at key moments; almost no music; and people getting dragged along the floor by invisible forces.
Scariest scene: Within the context of the whole series, Katie's late-night vigils are eerier than ever, and the last scene is worth the wait.
Grade/Comments: B+. Paranormal Activity's low-budget conceit is the best thing about it. But having one good idea is not too shabby for a movie whose two leads spend most of their time asleep or in bed.
Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)
Premise: Katie's sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and her family struggle with "break-ins" and other unexplained disturbances that may have something to do with their youngest son Hunter.
Formal innovation: The numerous security cameras Kristi and her husband install inside and outside of their large suburban home dramatically increase director Tod Williams' ability to cover all of the potential action. The multiple-camera setup also allows Williams to cross-cut between locations, especially during the film's suspenseful second half.
Scariest scene: A broad-daylight calamity in the kitchen is the best shock of the whole series.
Grade/Comments: A-. This Paranormal Activity succeeds thanks to its larger canvas, stronger performances, surer grasp of the unspoken horrors of family life, and numerous callbacks to the original film.
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
Premise: This prequel takes place in 1989, when Paranormal Activity 2's siblings Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) were little girls. In this film, we discover that they have previous experience with things that go bump in the night.
Formal innovation: A VHS camera mounted on a rotating fan placed between the living room and the dining room sets up a couple of nerve-wracking passages; never have the noises of a stupid, clunky household appliance sounded more sinister.
Scariest scene: There are a half-dozen quick 'n' dirty cheap scares here, but, along with the rotating fan stuff, the "Bloody Mary" sequence in the bathroom and the finale are the franchise's most sustained stretches of filmmaking.
Grade/Comments: A-. By developing and attempting to clarify its own convoluted mythology, the third film loses some of the mystery and ambiguity that distinguished it from other discovered-footage imitations. Still, I underrated it at the time. It gets to where it's going in stylish fashion, and one shot of a woman at — or is she hovering above? — the top of a staircase embodies the technical skill at the heart of any good scary movie moment.
Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)
Premise: Taking place five years after the events of Paranormal Activity 2, Paranormal Activity 4 follows Alex (Kathryn Newton), a teenage girl whose little brother (Aiden Lovekamp) has started to hang around with a little Damien-type (Brady Allen) from across the street. Things go south faster than you can say, "This sleepover was a bad idea."
Formal innovation: Every kid's got a phone or a laptop these days, so built-in computer cameras allow Alex to video-chat with her boyfriend, Ben (Matt Shively), and let directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman use tight close-ups regularly for the first time. And those tight close-ups free Joost and Schulman to tinker with foreground and background space in their frames. This was tougher to do in the previous films, which often eschewed close-ups until the very end. The possibility of people or non-human things sneaking up on each other now becomes more common.
Scariest scene: Katie's perfectly calm and normal greeting to Alex was perfectly creepy.
Grade/Comments: B+. Newton and Shively's naturalistic performances drive the film, but the abrupt ending is too much like a shortened version of Paranormal Activity 3. However, it might be the rare film that improves when you watch it on a laptop late at night.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)
Premise: Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz) are two high school kids who start poking around their weird neighbor's apartment after her death. Turns out she's into some strange stuff, like stealing baby pictures and putting hexes on snoopy teenagers.
Formal innovations: Christopher Landon's latest chapter in this ongoing story discards most of its predecessors' distinctive stylistic strategies. There are no time-date stamps or superimposed "Night #1" titles, and there aren't many fixed-position single takes, either. Instead, the film's visual strategy borrows heavily from 2012's excellent Chronicle and the better segments from the V/H/S horror anthologies, but the results are lame.
Scariest scene: One kinda funny constant in the Paranormal Activity series is that at some point in every film a guy tries to convince his wife/girlfriend to let him film them having sex. This trick never works. But this time, a girl meets Jesse one night and gets a similar idea. She sets everything up beforehand, but before they can get down to business, Jesse disappears. The Marked Ones' extended old-dark-house finale is cheap when compared to this girl waiting ... and waiting ... .
Grade/Comments: C+. This is by far the most conventional and derivative installment, and its wacky conclusion raises too many continuity issues to mention. In spite of the vitality of the Latin American cast and the working-class setting, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is both a dead-end and a rip-off.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones