This article contains minor spoilers for all three Paranormal Activity films.
This past weekend, the third installment of the Paranormal Activity franchise continued its winning streak with American audiences by grossing a record-setting $54 million. The movie cost a meager $5 million to produce—think they'll make a sequel?
Unless every executive at Paramount Pictures is suddenly overcome my demonic possession, it's a pretty safe bet that a Paranormal Activity 4 is on its way for next October. And, similar to this year, it's a pretty safe bet that the masses will flock to theaters once again to soak up the new chapter's otherworldly scares. The low odds for failure create a safety net, a simple way for a studio to make a giant pile of money. But sadly, the fail safe also creates a cushion. The next Paranormal Activity 4 doesn't have to be good, it just has to exist. As long as we'll see them, the studio will churn out PA clones year after year, creating a potential for the series to go the way of Saw (read: they don't make Saw movies anymore).
Obviously, driving a franchise into nonexistence doesn't help the studio either—so what needs to happen to maintain the momentum? Note the series' past: The first Paranormal Activity was lightning in a bottle, a small-scale relationship drama peppered with just enough ghostly scares to classify it in the horror genre. Paranormal Activity 2 was more of the same, but on a bigger scale—more walking, more talking, more household objects moving on their own and a finale that injected the series with a bizarre twist of mythology. PA2 pushed its luck replicating the found footage-style of movie one, but thanks to another slew of characters (connected to the original cast) and a prequelized format (the original ended with a possessed Katie killing her boyfriend, while 2 ends with Katie's extended family placing a curse on her head and giving cause to her original haunting and rampage), the movie was still engaging.
Paranormal Activity 3 upped the ante again, taking us all the way back to the '80s to follow PA1 and PA2 leads Katie and Kristi as children, dealing with the spiritual ruckus of their past. While still employing the found footage format—the movie's main character Dennis is a wedding videographer who sets up crappy VHS cams on oscillating fan stands—PA3 feels the most like a conventional movie. It doesn't need to make sense why Dennis is always filming his girlfriend and her two daughters (Katie and Kristi's father is mysteriously absent), it's just that he does. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman (Catfish) find inventive ways to shoot the action and don't mind going bigger and deadlier with menacing force's attacks. The movie concludes with a bizarre, Wicker Man-like finale that doesn't explain too much, but certainly opens the door even wider for storytelling expansion.
The real question is if Paramount is gutsy enough (or audiences accepting enough) to mess with a formula that is working. After PA3 the possibilities seem endless, but the intricate backstory—involving curses and covens, spiritual connection and devilish symbols— may not be what draws people to the Paranormal Activity films. After marathoning my way through the first two movies last weekend (courtesy of Netflix Watch Instantly), I found myself gripped by the idea of couples, families and real human beings contending with an unexplainable, destructive force. That's PA 1 & 2 in a nutshell, but PA3 turned the franchise on its head—I wasn't expecting what it delivered in the slightest...and found that even more thrilling. The movies had continuous and obvious threads, but they didn't feel like sequels.
Here's an incredibly out-there metaphor: In the late 19th century, farmers were plagued by bad soil and weren't quite sure why. That's when scientist George Washington Carver stepped in and established crop rotation practices. By varying the types of crops planted in a particular patches of soil each season, the farmers were able to sustain the land without diminishing its nutrients. They could keep farming each year, but one season they'd plant tobacco in a certain section, and the next they'd plant cotton, to ensure that a few years later, they could plant tobacco again. Continuously planting one crop over and over was relentless and harmful.
This practice is apt to a great franchise of any kind. If Paranormal Activity is going to continue to succeed at the quality level we've come to expect, then it has to change things up in a drastic way. No one wants to be Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which completely abandoned the first film's faux-documentary style, but Paranormal Activity is further down the road. It has options.
The movie could continue to prequelize, but it would have to go crazy. Maybe a found footage movie shot in even lower-fi style, following the mother of PA3, would jive with the retro current of today's audiences (although Super 8 didn't do gangbusters). Heck, the movie could go way, way back, abandon the mock doc approach and chronicle the third movie's mysterious old lady cult. Or maybe it's finally time for a sequel. A team to track down the murderous Katie as she uses demon powers to break the necks of everyone in San Diego. Better yet, let's try something new. Completely fresh, but intrinsically tied to the franchise. A spiritual sequel (no pun intended).
After three movies, the Paranormal Activity series needs to rotate the crops . Bring in new faces, new backstories, but tie it, through imagery and mythology, to the first trilogy. There's an opportunity here that shouldn't be squandered, or four Octobers from now we'll be seeing Paranormal Activity 7 in 3D the Last Installment Ever Goodbye Farewell We Know You Hate Us Now. Obviously Paranormal Activity 4 couldbe more of the same and audiences would be content. A no risk final product that feeds the hunger for more Halloween jump scares. That'd be easy. But it's a great series and it shouldn't take the easy route.
I think this is the part where we ask the Ouija board.
Paranormal Activity 3 – the latest chapter in the low-budget haunted-house saga begun in 2007 by D.I.Y. filmmaker Oren Peli – is presented as a prequel to 2010’s Paranormal Activity 2 which itself was a prequel of sorts to the first film. Taking the helm for the latest found-footage foray is the directing duo of Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost whose 2010 debut the Facebook documentary Catfish provided chills of a more existential variety. (It also encountered a fair share of skepticism about its authenticity which in an odd way makes the filmmakers uniquely qualified to direct a film like this.)
Schulman and Joost know better than to tinker with a proven formula – the first two films grossed over $370 million worldwide combined – and their film for the most part employs the same straightforward premise and stripped down approach as its predecessors. The only real difference is the time period: Whereas the first two films took place in the recent past Paranormal Activity 3 turns the clock all the way back to 1988 when young sisters Katie and Kristi purportedly first came into contact with otherworldly houseguests. (I say “purportedly” because nothing is ever certain in this genre.)
The girls’ troubles begin shortly after their single mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) invites her boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith notable only for his resemblance to former Gonzaga point guard Dan Dickau) to move in with them. A professional wedding videographer with a host of camera and editing equipment at his disposal Dennis is conveniently equipped to chronicle the events that ensue. What follows is standard Paranormal Activity protocol. It begins with a few seemingly innocuous late-night stirrings followed by more ominous occurrences. Furniture gets rearranged. A light fixture falls from the ceiling. Soon the spirit – or whatever it is – grows more bold befriending the youngest sister Kristi who nicknames it “Toby.” And just what does Toby want exactly? If Kristi knows she isn’t telling.
The plot of Paranormal Activity 3 is pretty much rubbish so I suppose we should be thankful there’s only enough of it to provide context to the scares. The majority of them are exceedingly cheap more the product of aggressive sound design than anything else – and yet still maddeningly effective. (There are a handful of truly devious jump cuts for which the filmmakers should frankly be ashamed.) You jump from your seat and immediately curse yourself for doing so.
The found-footage genre is now established enough that we are well-trained to its devices. It’s one reason why these films are so much better when experienced with a large crowd preferable late in the evening. As we collectively scan the static frame for traces of movement the briefest glimpse of a supernatural presence it feels like a collective game of “Where’s Waldo ” the winner declared in an excited terrified gasp. Played alone it just seems stupid.
Paramount today released a brand-new trailer for its horror prequel Paranormal Activity 3, directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost (Catfish) and written by Christopher Landon (Paranormal Activity 2):
Whether or not you thought Catfish was real (is this still a debate? Was it ever settled? More importantly, did anyone care?) the duo behind it are using it’s real success for better projects. Well, better in terms of being handed a highly successful and lucrative franchise instead of following one of your friends as he tries to land an internet “girl.” Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman will take over Paranormal Activity 3 from the original and its sequel director Oren Peli. Paranormal Activity 2 writer Christopher Landon will also be returning to pen the third installment.
I guess this makes logical sense for the duo although one has to wonder what kind of direction a movie needs when it's mostly security camera footage and doors opening. Boom, roasted.
Everyone knows that dating over the internet can be a hazardous undertaking. Tales of lovelorn online souls burned by misleading or downright duplicitous suitors rank only behind porn and pop-up ads in their cyber-ubiquity. But the advent of Facebook that monolithic social network that recently surpassed Google as the most visited site in the world has substantially widened the pool of potential targets for aspiring romantic fraudsters. This is the unsettling notion that propels Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s fascinating new documentary Catfish. It begins as a chronicle of the relatively humdrum correspondence between Nev a 24-year-old New York photographer and an eight-year-old Michigan art prodigy named Abby. (Nev also happens to be Ariel’s brother.) But when the interaction moves from email to Facebook and Nev links up with Abby’s older half-sister Megan Faccio the film shifts its focus accordingly and its true dramatic potential begin to unfold.
Nev’s connection with Megan a part-time model and veritable renaissance woman — she’s a talented dancer as well as an accomplished singer-songwriter — is immediate and intense. When he isn’t flirting with her via instant messenger he spends hours on Facebook poring over her photos listening to her music and attempting to decipher cryptic “status updates” and messages posted on her “wall” by various friends. Late at night they exchange amorous text messages detailing all of the saucy things they hope to do in the event they actually consummate their long-distance affair. (Like her half-sister Megan lives in Michigan.) But their budding romance takes a sour turn when Nev begins to uncover subtle clues that Megan isn’t being entirely honest with him. As evidence of her deceit grows from a trickle into an avalanche a chafed Nev decides to travel to Megan’s Michigan home documentary crew in tow and confront her To Catch a Predator-style.
This is the point in Catfish where one feels tempted to start tapping the Bulls**t Button. Nev’s naiveté as well as that of the filmmakers feels more than a little disingenuous. It’s hard to believe that the trio of educated digitally savvy gents from New York a city accustomed to scams and scam artists of all types would fall so wholeheartedly for such a scenario. And Nev though geeky and neurotic and a tad hirsute appears plenty appealing enough to snag a flesh-and-blood mate in a city where Woody Allen is considered sexy. Their professed shock at their discovery is betrayed by a barely concealed glee over having stumbled upon a documentary subject considerably more intriguing than a second-grader who paints pretty pictures. We'll never know what their real suspicions were if any but it seems fairly obvious that they at least suspended their disbelief for the sake of compelling drama.
That’s not to say it wasn’t a staggeringly well-constructed scam. That the boys discover the girl isn’t what she seems when they find her Michigan is hardly earth-shattering; it’s the disparity between the real and the fake identities and the startling lengths to which the person behind the digital curtain goes to perpetuate the ruse that are Catfish’s real revelations. It would be criminal to spill any additional details but suffice it to say they’re enough to disturb and frighten anyone who uses Facebook with any regularity. Which is to say almost all of us.