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.