A Saturday’s Paranormal Activity

Earlier this week at the screening of the new tv series The River, I won a prize pack which included autographed copies of all of three (to-date) Paranormal Activity films.

So Saturday morning, while I settled in to do laundry and groceries, I worked my way through all three films.

The first is still my favorite, and while not always a fan of the ‘found-footage’ genre, there is a reason this one works.

It was the first time that something like this was brought into our homes.

Yes, there had been slews of haunted houses, and demonic stories told in homes and suburbia before, Poltergeist (my favorite), The Exorcist (another personal fave), the original Amityville Horror, The Changeling and The Entity, but this was the first time the POV format was brought to play in it.

Because of this, there is an immediacy to all the films, whether one deems them good or not, and I’m kinda on the fence on that mark.

Movie goers bring their own beliefs into films like this when they see them, and it directly influences their enjoyment and scare factor when viewing them.

There are countless people who deride these films because to them, nothing happens, it’s all… “Ohhh, a door moved,” or “oh, a shadow…” which doesn’t allow them to buy into the film and go for the ride as things get creepier.

If you do however go into these films with a belief in the idea of something supernatural being possible, or, have had experiences of your own, whether imagined or no, then you’ll likely be properly scared by them.

My big problem with this series, initially, was that it only focused on one family. Surely under a blanket title like Paranormal Activity we could tell many stories, not just the tale of one family’s history told through three films.

Perhaps what they will do with further installments, though we do have to learn a little bit more about Katie and Kristi’s family, and I’m a little intrigued to see where they go.

I should clarify that when it comes to things like this, I don’t need complete answers, much like horror movies, I like somethings being left in the dark to let them work on my imagination,

But I figure there must be a little more that they can tell us without showing everything, and therefore spoiling it.

The first film is arguably the best, because it did it first.

It centers on Katie and Micah, and something that seems to be following Katie since her youth. Micah, unbelieving at first and a bit of a douche about it, picks up a camera to document these events. He also does a bang up job of antagonizing the thing, and thinks he’s entitled to because Katie never told him that this thing has been following her since childhood.

Things, as they do, go from bad to worse, and most of it ends up on tape, if you know where to look. The film tends to lend you into a false sense of security, with long stretches of absolutely nothing happening, and as night falls you hesitantly wait for things you know are going to happen. But the quiet continues to build up.

For the most part you know you don’t have to worry about anything unless you hear a bass rumble emanating from the soundtrack. It always portends something is about to occur. As the film goes on, these incidents grow bigger, louder, and more focused. Culminating on a physical attack on Katie.

Poor Kate.

There are many bits in the film I do like, Katie standing for hours in the middle of the night watching Micah sleep, being dragged from the bed by her foot, footprints in the powder, watching for shadows.

All of this culminates in disaster for the two of them. Though to be honest, Micah was kind of asking for it. He had no respect for the thing that was happening, and constantly sought to encourage it to get it on camera, even violating Katie’s trust… what a good guy… Sigh.

But that brings us to number two…

Activity 2 is set just before the first film, and it ends shortly after the first film does.

This film shifts the attention to Katie’s younger sister Kristi, who is home with a newborn son named Hunter.

It’s important to note, that apparently this is the first son born to the family since the 1930s. He is therefore the center of the activity that springs up in the house.

This time there is a whole family involved, and one, once again, is put in mind of Poltergeist. After some odd things happen, the family is troubled. Believing it to be caused by a rash of break-ins, they have a number of security cameras installed, which means that most of the camerawork, while not always centered on the action (intentionally of course) is steadier than handheld footage, though that is something that only happens in the series when things get really wacky.

Kristi’s stepdaughter is intrigued by the idea of a ghost haunting them, but kicks into research mode when things get more frightening, learning that perhaps it’s not a ghost, but in fact a demonic presence.

The family dog gets into it as well, and I do like how she kind of assigns herself as the baby’s protector, sleeping in Hunter’s room, and growling at an unseen presence, until it decides to take the poor animal out of the running.

This film does try to up the ante with some of the scares. Once again it leaves long periods where nothing happens. The family discusses what’s going on, the husband citing disbelief, so much so that he fires the live-in help, who attempted to bless the house and cast out the dark spirits.

Kristi starts to suspect something darker is going on, something from her half-remembered childhood, though Katie advises her to ignore it.

Simply scares are used to good effect, pots and pans falling off hooks, lights switching on, the basement door opening and closing on it’s own, the kitchen cupboards popping open. Everything one would want from a haunted house experience.

Building on the creep factor of Katie being dragged out of the bed in the fist film, the same thing is done to baby Hunter freeing him from his crib, and Kristi herself is dragged down the hall, stairs and into the basement, with the door slamming shut behind her.

Once again, tragedy strikes for almost the entire family, with only the step-daughter escaping the supernatural attacks of the film’s climax. The film’s taglines leave the fate of a couple of characters in the air… leaving you to wonder where number 3 is going…

The answer is… further back into the family history…

Back to the year… 1985. Not really. I just love that line. In fact, the third film is set in 1988 and told through rediscovered videotapes chronicling events in the lives of Katie and Kristi when they were little girls.

Now of course there is no way videotape quality could be used in a theatrical experience, so you have to let them have that one. It’s called suspension of disbelief, and please, if you’ve made it to number 3, suspension of disbelief should not be a problem for you.

However, by going back in time to their childhood, you know that no matter what happens to these two little girls, they are going to survive. So there isn’t a sense of jeopardy surrounding them. Course one can’t say the same about their mother, and step-father Dennis.

Seeing as no real harm can come to the girls, the ante is upped with the creepy factor, by finally giving a name to this thing. The demon is masquerading as Kristi’s imaginary friend, Toby.

Subtle hints are made by the girls’ visiting grandmother that perhaps Julie, their mother, should have another child, a boy. Something Julie quickly dismisses.

This is meant to explain the demon’s focus on the girls, and also leads us to guess at what Toby asks Kristi, as we only hear her side of the conversation when they talk.

For me, this film was a mixed bag. There were things I liked and a couple of things that really bothered me.

The things I really liked was the introduction of the name Toby, it put me in mind of reading the Amityville Horror, and the idea of “Jodie.” There were times after reading the book that I wouldn’t look out my window at night, for fear of seeing two red pin-like eyes looking back at me.

I also like the fact that despite the fact that we don’t see him, Toby has a physical effect on the world around him, including when Katie runs right into him while chasing Kristi and then lifting her by her hair.

Of course, he has a physical effect though, we’ve seen it in the previous two films.

I like the fact, that the sleep-walking and standing over a sleeping person for hours at a time is shown again.

I like Dennis’ assistant as he brings some much needed comic relief.

I also like the game of Bloody Mary, cause who hasn’t stared into a mirror and wondered what would happen…

The poltergeist film is referenced again with the entire kitchen dropping from the ceiling in a moment I really enjoyed.

But there were things that bothered me a bit too. The ghost in the sheet, I really enjoyed. But how could it be Toby? Kristi tells us that Toby is very tall and very old, but this ghost in a sheet is barely taller than one of the girls. Still it’s a great moment.

The other thing that bothered me, was when we dig a little further into the mythology. I’m all for demonic symbols, and designs… but then to hint that this demon was brought over because a coven of witches made a bargain with it for the first-born son of their lineage…? I’m ok with nearly all of that but for the witches idea. Wicca has had a bad enough rap over the centuries, and to think that we still propagate that kind of prejudice against an earth-based religion? Sigh.

They could have called them Satanists,or some such, but no.

I guess that’s a fairly trivial complaint, but it stuck in my craw is all.

The internal mythologies of the films is fairly coherent, but for Micah referring to Katie’s mother coming for a visit in the first film. Course, we don’t know that she’s dead I guess… We also know that at some point there’s a fire, though that hasn’t happened yet… Course perhaps Katie mis-remembered that, as her grandmother hints that there is some brainwashing of the women in effect.

These films don’t pretend to be anything they aren’t. They’re simply meant to be spooky popcorn movies that are meant to give you some scares in the dark, and as previously mentioned, if you can buy into the subject matter, then chances are, they’ll do their job.

It’ll be interesting to see where the series goes from here, number 4 is due in theaters this October. Will we go back to the 70s, the 60s, will the next one be Paranormal Activity: Super 8? Or will it be set in the present with footage from security cameras, iphones, and cctv?

Hard to tell, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, and occasionally sleep with the lights on. (Though we’ve seen that that doesn’t do much good either…)

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