by D.W. Lundberg

Monday, October 31, 2011


So The Blair Witch Project made close to a gazillion dollars back in 1999, and suddenly, "found footage" copycats were everywhere. Noroi, Diary Of The Dead, [REC], Cloverfield - everyone wanted a piece of the action. The reasons for this were fairly cut and dry: they were cheap, they were easy to shoot, you could cast relatively unknown actors as your leads and no one would raise a fuss, and better yet, audiences seemed to get a kick out of them, so you had the luxury of making loads of money off of very little. Hollywood, as we've made it abundantly clear, is always looking to replicate its own successes.

Granted, Blair Witch was hardly the first "found footage" feature ever made. The Last Broadcast, about a cable-TV crew on the hunt for the mythical Jersey Devil, was released just one year previous, and might have been a direct influence on Blair Witch directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez when creating their movie. And perhaps the most notorious of these, Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust (1980), was banned in several countries for its graphic depiction of tribal rituals in the Amazon Basin (Deodato was later brought up on murder charges by the Italian government, who believed he'd made an actual "snuff film").

What The Blair Witch got absolutely right, which its predecessors only hinted at, was the way it tickled our deepest, darkest fantasies - and invaded our pop culture consciousness. First came the legendary marketing campaign, which started on the Internet and then quietly gathered word of mouth at the Sundance Film Festival and in various college towns; a Sci-Fi Channel TV special, which aired just prior to the film's release; and finally, a limited-screen engagement that became the see-it-or-be-square event of the decade. Then came the movie itself, sold as the real thing, so you felt like an active part of the film's mythology. It was a con, a hoax, and audiences ate it up, hook, line and sinker.

Of all the copycats that followed, few have tapped into the pop cultural zeitgeist in exactly the same way. A few of these I've already mentioned (both 2005's Noroi, from Japan, and 2007's zombie-centric [REC] made my "Best Of" list for last decade), but even they remain relatively unknown. Some call this a good thing – by skirting the edge of public awareness, they maintain an eerie, urban legend- like quality that the genre inherently implies. The appeal of any great Horror title, though, is audience participation – gathering together with a group of peers, sharing in our collective inner desire (whether you accept this or not) to have the pants scared off us. And no other "found footage" franchise of the past decade captured the public's imagination like Paranormal Activity, Oren Peli's minimalist, ingeniously creepy take on the haunted house movie.

The premise for Paranormal Activity is relatively simple. A young couple, fearing their home is under attack from a malevolent, demon-like entity, sets up a video camera to record the mysterious goings- on in their bedroom at night. I'd heard whisperings of the movie's existence in late 2007, when it debuted at the Screamfest Film Festival in Los Angeles, but even then I remember falling head over heels for the idea: it had the potential not just for pure, unadulterated shocks but also to serve as Blair Witch's rightful successor to the throne.

As it turned out, Activity's two-year trek from undiscovered horror gem to bona fide box office phenomenon rivaled even The Blair Witch Project for sheer media chutzpa. The Screamfest screening caught the attention of the Creative Artists Agency, who shopped DVD copies around to studios until they finally settled at DreamWorks, where Steven Spielberg planned to remake the movie on a larger budget. After the original version was shown to audiences, however, Paramount/DreamWorks dropped the remake idea and snatched up the domestic rights to Peli's movie instead. The studio then re-cut it and shot a new ending (suggested by Spielberg), and screened the film in randomly-selected college towns across the U.S. The overwhelming response led to a social media campaign at, which allowed film-goers across the country to "demand" screenings in cities close to their homes. This marked the first time that audiences not only determined a movie's success at the box office, but where it opened as well, and on October 10, 2009, Paranormal Activity hit a record one million votes on the site. Paramount rolled out a national release the following weekend. The film grossed $19.6 million – not enough to finish first at the box office – but over the weekend of October 23rd it rose to #1, beating out the expected champion, Saw VI, by $6 million. And it only snowballed from there. Paranormal Activity's final worldwide tally wound up at $193,355,800 – not bad for a little movie that could.

Like The Blair Witch, it was an event - an experience best enjoyed in the dark, with a crowd full of like-minded Horror junkies. Like The Blair Witch, it's a terror-drenched, gore-free entertainment, more invested in character (recognizably human and occasionally grating as those characters may be) and good old-fashioned scares than tacky CGI and gut-churning makeup effects. (It follows my definition of a genuinely scary Horror picture, meaning what you don't see is always scarier than what you actually do see.) Unlike The Blair Witch, the makers of Paranormal Activity never once tried to trick its audience into believing they were watching an actual, true- life thing; going in, you knew exactly what you were in for, and that, I think, is a big part of its appeal.

I'm not about to convince you that the movie is art; either you like this sort of thing or you don't. But as a ruthless, slow-burn scare machine it works, and works beautifully. As for the actors, stars Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (playing versions of themselves) seem natural and real; they improvised all of their dialogue, from Peli's extensive script notes, and have an easy chemistry that comes through on the screen. (Mark Fredrichs' stilted line delivery, as a psychic consulted by Katie and Micah, lets us know early on that the movie's a fake.) We sympathize with these characters, and fret for them, because they fear what we all fear - fear of the dark, fear of those things that go bump in the night, of being caught in a situation beyond our control.

The movie's resounding success, on the other hand, was something very much within our control - a cinematic social networking experience unlike anything we'd seen before. Then, of course, came the inevitable sequels. This time, it seems, we only have ourselves to blame.


The Original: Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007)

Cast: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs

Plot: A San Diego couple, fearing their home is haunted by a malevolent, unseen entity, sets up a video camera to record mysterious activity in their bedroom at night.

How It Set The Tone: An efficient, slow-burn scare machine, made on a budget of $11,000 and guaranteed to give you the heebie jeebies at least half a dozen times during its 90-minute running time. Writer-director Oren Peli shot the film in his own house over a self-imposed seven-day schedule, and let his actors (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, playing themselves) improvise all their dialogue; as a result, the film has an intimate, this-could- really-be-happening vibe, though it was never marketed as such. The structure is ingenious: During the day, our protagonists jabber on about their worries and fears and generally go about their business, and you let our guard down. But at night as they sleep, when they're most vulnerable, you lean forward in your seat, giddy with anticipation, because you just know something's about to come along and jolt you. (Never have the words "Night # 17" conjured up instant feelings of dread like they do here.) Tack on a brilliant, cutting-edge social media campaign, and you've got a worthy successor to the Blair Witch throne.

Room For Improvement: The acting gets a little one- note, and the "plot," as it were, keeps chugging along until it simply runs out of steam, coming to an all-too abrupt stop. (Steven Spielberg suggested the movie's re-shot ending, and though I can see his point - the original finale felt a little anti- climactic - it cheats by giving the audience a cheap CGI send-off.) As a "found footage" feature, it also shares many flaws inherent to the genre (queasy-on-the-stomach hand-held camerawork, nattering personality types, and a protagonist who refuses to put the camera down, no matter the situation). Still, it's tough to beat the movie's unrelenting scare quotient, including an eerie scene with a Ouija board, and a shock-tastic gag exactly 64 minutes in (theatrical version) that will get your palms sweating on your remote.

Grade: B+

Sequel: Paranormal Activity 2 (Tod Williams, 2010)

Returning Cast: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat

New Cast: Sprague Grayden, Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim

Plot: A young mother believes that her home is under attack from a demon-like entity, though her husband and teenage step-daughter refuse to believe her.

How It Compares: The novelty might have worn off, but this follow-up to the worldwide box office phenomenon plays tricks with the audience that must be seen to be believed. Actually, it's more of a prequel/sequel hybrid, the majority of which takes place (SPOILER) a full two months before the events of PA 1. Our protagonist this time is Kristi Rey (Sprague Grayden), Katie's younger sister, who brings her newborn son home from the hospital and is almost immediately beset by otherworldly household occurrences. Following an apparent break- in, husband Dan (Brian Boland) sets up a security camera in almost every room - a neat visual nod to the first movie, and an improvement too, since the shocks now come from anywhere and everywhere, at any time. Most of the scares, in fact, are just souped-up variations on the same old thing - slamming doors, disembodied footsteps, Ouija boards, characters dragged by unseen entities across the floor, with a dog and a baby tossed in for good measure - but they come at such a jittery, nerve-racking pace I doubt you'd even care.

Grade: B

Sequel: Paranormal Activity 3 (Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, 2011)

Returning Cast: Katie Featherston, Sprague Grayden, Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim

New Cast: Christopher Nicholas Smith, Lauren Bittner, Chloe Csengery, Jessica Tyler Brown, Dustin Ingram, Hallie Foote

Plot: Eighteen years prior to the events of Paranormal Activity, young Katie and Kristi Featherston unwittingly invite a malevolent spirit into their home.

How It Compares: There's a scene from the teaser trailer to PA 3, in which two little girls record themselves playing a game of "Bloody Mary" in a bathroom mirror. It's something most of us played as kids - turn out the lights, repeat the name three times in the dark, and wait - and as the game commenced, I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck ("Here it comes... here it comes... I don't really want to see this, do I?"). That scene isn't in the movie - well, not exactly - but it's a perfect example of what gives this series such a wicked, shivery charge: it's hard-wired into our innermost childhood fears. For a while at least, directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost goose their audience with fine-tuned precision - there's an early gag involving a mask and a closet, another with a ghoul in a bed sheet, and a masterfully-conceived, recurrent camera shot, mounted on top of an oscillating fan to capture the action between two rooms. Then comes the overwrought 15-minute climax, which manages to rip off Blair Witch, The Ring, and Rosemary's Baby all at once. Worse, it bends (ahem) the mythology in some deeply unsettling ways. Time to hang up the camera, guys, before the formula officially runs its course.

Grade: B-

More To Come?: Pretty much a foregone conclusion. PA3 grossed a record-breaking (for a Horror film) $54 million when it was released just two weekends ago, so expect a press release for PA 4 any day now. [UPDATE - Deadline announced here that PA 4 is scheduled for October 19, 2012.] As long as they keep finding new ways to tweak our expectations, I'm fine with that.


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