Insidious: The Last Key was quite effective in its scares, but sometimes it’s even scarier to show less, as in the divisive Paranormal Activity found footage horror series.
(USA 2007, director: Oren Peli)
Young couple Katie and Micah is tyrannized by a demonic presence in their house that has followed Katie since her childhood, so Micah tries to get to the bottom of the nocturnal activities with his camera.
It’s been 8 years since I reviewed this movie in a movie night special, so it might feel a bit redundant to discuss it again. However, as I didn’t give it any score, didn’t include any trailer or other information, it’s worth having another look at it and find out if it’s still as effective today after all these years with multiple screenings. The short answer is: yes. Even if one knows when certain jump scares take place, this is still a movie that builds tension and atmosphere like very few in the genre.
Of course the main characters, especially the girlfriend with her dominant/condescending way of talking to her boyfriend, need some getting used to. But it’s testament to a great movie if one finally feels for them because of the unbearable situation they’re in. Doors that slowly open or footsteps in the hall are standard haunting mansion/house material, but if it’s done with such a great sound design, including an spine-tingling alien scream all of a sudden, it’s difficult not to jump up. The acting is also quite natural, while the dialogues feel real as well. Story-wise there isn’t a lot, but the way how Katie’s past slowly comes back works great with building up tension, while dispensing of the typical exorcist help is rather original, too. The atmosphere becomes more and more sinister so that one feels as if someone tightens a noose around one’s neck. However, it all depends on how much one gets into the movie, as most of the terror isn’t done by special effects which aren’t over-used, but still effective with what little they show the audience.
Paranormal Activity 2
(USA 2010, director: Tod Williams)
A family’s home seems to be broken in, but after installing security cameras, they find out that something supernatural threatens their sanity and lives.
Sometimes a movie fails simply because of its characters, and this is sadly true for this sequel. A father who’s as obnoxiously strict and ignorant until it’s too late, a wife who can’t do much else than run away each time something falls down, a daughter who tries to be the cool one, but who is just as annoying as her dumb boyfriend who doesn’t add anything to the story don’t make them easy to relate and even more difficult to feel compassion for. One actually starts to cheer for the entity that slowly drives them crazy and wishes that it would simply kill them off one by one. Unfortunately one has to wait quite some time until something worthwhile happens, i.e. if one hasn’t switched off after half of the running time.
Some people might argue that the concept of playing with the audience’s expectation isn’t any different from the predecessor, but while the first one slowly builds up tension with paranormal activities that make sense, this one simply makes the audience wait for something that doesn’t happen. The movie makes the big mistake of showing too many scenes of small talk for too long. The obvious idea is to present the characters’ everyday life, but that’s not really what one is interested in. Many cameras might mean many opportunities to scare the audience, but just making some pottery suddenly fall down or drawers open after nothing has happened is more than just a cheap jump scare, it’s an insult to the audience’s intelligence. While the finale is quite effective and surprisingly brutal, the lack of creeping horror that sets in too late is just as disappointing as that one doesn’t care what happens to a family that is as rich and as obnoxious as this one.
Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night
(Japan 2010, director: Toshikazu Nagae, original title: Paranômaru akutibiti: Dai-2-shô – Tokyo Night)
A young woman returns from her USA trip to Japan in a wheelchair and while her brother helps her at home, they soon experience strange phenomena of the demonic variety.
If one thinks that it can’t get any worse than the second movie, then one is in for a hellish surprise with this Japanese version. While it’s a great idea to go back to a more claustrophobic setting with only two people at the center of the nightly terrors, it’s not particularly good to have a female lead who can’t do anything but hysterically scream and pout her lips when something doesn’t quite go her way. Adding a brother who doesn’t have anything else to do than to bother her about setting up a camera in her room, even though she told him a million times (or during 10 minutes runtime of the movie) that she doesn’t want to is an even worse idea. The rest of the cast, like a psychic friend and an exorcist, are as clichéd as they’re uninteresting, only adding to the talkative nature of the movie and showing that if one doesn’t have any special effects or a worthwhile story to tell, at least one can fill the runtime with boring dialogue and a lot of mumbo jumbo singing. Maybe the audience starts to believe that something is actually happening and done about the situation that doesn’t seem that unsettling or dangerous in the first place.
This is probably the biggest problem: The movie isn’t scary in the least. Of course the same disturbing sound effects like loud footsteps are used, and the opening of doors are just as predictable as the ghostly movement of curtains. But this simply doesn’t matter, as the audience never feels as if there’s a threatening and malignant force at work, except for the last 20 minutes or so. The connection to the original is also far-fetched and doesn’t make any sense in the wider context of the series. In a nutshell, this is a movie that fails on every single level and isn’t only forgettable, but to be avoided like the plague, as it gives Japanese horror a bad name and makes the audience fall asleep long before the credits roll. It’s telling that there aren’t any UK or US home video releases for this movie (or even an English trailer), and that the German BD version doesn’t have any subtitles if one wants to watch the movie in the Japanese original, which is an absolute no-go, too.
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Paranormal Activity 3
(USA 2011, directors: Henry Joost/Ariel Schulman)
Long before Katie and Micah are haunted by the demon in their house, Katie and her sister Kristi as children make contact with an invisible being called Toby that seems to be their friend, but seems to want something more than playing with them.
Prequels usually have the problem that one already knows what will happen, so that there isn’t much of a surprising twist. However, in this case there are more unexpected story events, especially at the end, that the whole possession and haunted house concept of the first movie is given a fresh overhaul that still makes sense. Having a child suddenly talk to someone who isn’t there is downright creepy, and the movie again plays with the audience’s vivid imagination of what friend Toby looks like and what he does. Usually child actors in movies are a hit-or-miss affair, but they do a pretty great job to act naturally here, maybe even better than the adults. Unlike the Japanese sequel or the second movie, one doesn’t have to wait long before the first disturbing hauntings start, and this time the special effects are much more impressive.
The use of cameras is also great, the most memorable one being mounted on a ventilator in the kitchen, so it slowly turns left and right, making the audience anxious of what happens during the time when one doesn’t see the other half of the room, and of course the scary things usually show up or disappear when it turns there. Unfortunately, there are a few very cheap scares that don’t have anything to do with the supernatural elements, just people suddenly jumping into the camera frame. While these scenes are certainly heart-stopping, the movie could have done without them. Standing in front of a bathroom mirror with the lights turned off and whispering “Bloody Mary” might be a bit too clichéd and is reminiscent of the Candyman movies, but it’s still highly effective. Just like the scary rides at a fun fair, this movie delivers on everything one loves in the subtle horror genre.
Paranormal Activity 4
(USA 2011, directors: Henry Joost/Ariel Schulman)
New neighbors move into a suburban house, and the family next door soon takes in a young boy who is more than just a little weird, as his invisible friend Toby wants to take control of the sister’s smaller brother.
Children behaving in a creepy way are always good material for horror movies, and it also works in this one, at least to a certain degree. The main actor does a pretty good job of portraying the weird kid from the neighborhood, and seeing her younger brother slowly becoming estranged to his sister is scary as well. As he seems to be the only one she can count on in the family, as the relationship between her mother and father is close to divorce, it’s a worst case scenario if ever there was one. A cliché, yes, but still effective. However, it seems that there always has to be an annoying character, and this time it’s her boyfriend who is indescribably annoying. Maybe it’s intentional, but his wisecracking jokes and the way he acts as if he lives in the house doesn’t make him particularly sympathetic to the audience who soon wishes that the paranormal activity silences him in a gruesome manner fast.
Unfortunately, the movie takes way too long for something to actually happen. Despite a few good special effects or jump scares, one rarely feels any fear. Maybe it’s because one doesn’t care about the characters or maybe there simply isn’t enough creepiness. Even the use of a laptop as a camera doesn’t feel logical, carrying it around or even running with it. Of course there is a certain formula the series follows, as the ending is again quite effective, but as the real terror only happens for maybe 20 minutes in total for the whole movie, one just doesn’t care anymore. This is a shame, because an attempt at progressing the overall story is made, but it doesn’t prevent the movie from ultimately becoming forgettable.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones
(USA 2014, director: Christopher Landon)
High-school graduate Jesse and his friend Hector investigate their neighbor, an old woman who is supposedly a witch, and soon Jesse somehow receives supernatural powers that don’t come without a price, as his behavior towards others becomes darker and more dangerous.
This is a surprisingly different movie in setting, characters, and tone, but still fits rather nicely into the series. Of course one has to accept that the Mexican way of living in a neighborhood that is full of gangsters is as clichéd as it can be, while the jackass-like stunts or nonsense videos Jesse and Hector make test one’s patience more than just a few times. However, getting rid of the haunted house idea where things start moving around after an hour or so or the concept of kids doing and talking creepy stuff, but instead actually telling a more or less cohesive story is a welcome turn around.
What almost seems to be a comedy at first (with actually some very funny scenes) soon turns into a mystery thriller which then again changes genres by mixing horror and even some unexpected action sequences in a finale that is as bonkers as it’s ingenious. Without spoiling too much, suffice it to say that the way how the witchcraft and possession story turns into something much more mind-bending makes the newest movie a much more interesting proposition than what was attempted in the other movies. It might not always make sense, and the terror sets in rather late, but if one perseveres, one will be entertained with one hell of a rollercoaster ride.
Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension
(USA 2015, director: Gregory Plotkin)
A father finds VHS tapes that show what happened to the siblings Katie and Kristi whose fate is also connected his own daughter’s who becomes the target of supernatural forces which he can see with a special camera.
It’s a bold new move to make the audience finally see the demonic apparitions, considering that most of the horror played in their heads. While it might seem like a very bad idea, it becomes clear that doing the same opening-doors-moving-bed-sheets-shaking-the-chandelier routine has become rather stale. But even if the movie’s special effects make it more accessible for a mainstream audience accustomed to CGI, it still retains some of that classic haunted house and possession feeling, only setting itself apart with a dimension/time traveling twist the potential of which isn’t fully realized. There are a few jump scares and the clichéd exorcism scenes, but compared to the first movie, it rarely feels frightening or as intense as it could be, although it’s obvious that the 3D should alleviate this somewhat, as there are many in-your-face sequences.
The biggest problem is again the cast. While nowhere near as obnoxious as the father in the second movie, the new one isn’t the most interesting, either, probably because of the terrible acting. Of course the series has never delivered Oscar material performances, but here it’s downright annoying to see someone acting surprised and being concerned too hard. The less said about his annoying brother with a penchant for getting stoned and telling cheap jokes, the better. Maybe that’s the biggest issue of this movie and everything that followed after the original: characters one simply doesn’t care about or feel sympathy for, with too much small talk before something happens and too much downtime in between the scary bits.
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