Thursday, February 11, 2016

Paranormal Activity - A Full Series Overview

So up until recently, of the six Paranormal Activity films, I had only seen the last three, and as such, formed a fitting enough opinion of them, writing the series off as just being merely a hilariously bad series of movies. However, for years I've had a friend urging me to go back and watch the first three, and for years I've just kinda been putting that off. That is, until a couple weeks back, in which I finally gave those first three movies a watch, and then followed that up by re-watching the ones I had already seen again, which pretty much changed my perception both on those movies and the series as a whole. So let's start from the beginning now and see what I thought about Paranormal Activity in its entirety.

Warning: spoilers ahead!

The first movie I actually found myself quite impressed with. I found its simplicity actually made it stand out as quite an effective little film, and made for a pretty novel approach. Just the fact that they were able to get so much out of so minimal was really quite a feat. Honestly, it's a pretty solid film, and one that lays the mythological groundwork for the rest of the movies to gradually expand upon. However, if I were to say one negative thing about it, it would be that Micah proves himself to be quite possibly the biggest douchebag of the whole series, and it woulda been nicer to follow some more likeable characters here.

But anyways, that was the first movie, and the second movie honestly felt like a natural progression, giving us more of the same for the most part, but broadening the approach via the use of more security cameras through the house, and bringing a slightly larger cast into play. And it was fine, and actually pretty clever how it acts as both a prequel and sequel to the first movie, and continues to expand even further upon the series' myths with what exactly this whole paranormal activity these families are dealing with actually is. So yeah, this was another pretty solid outing, though honestly is probably the most forgettable in the series, as it really doesn't do much different that wasn't honestly done more effectively in the first movie.

Movie 3 is where things start to change up a bit, as we travel to the past, watching footage that was shot while our main characters from the first two movies, Katie and Kristi, were both kids, and this paranormal activity first came into their lives. I would say this movie is honestly probably the best in the series, featuring some very clever tricks via the use of the revolving fan camera that make for some of the most effective scares in the series, and also featuring quite honestly the most all around likeable cast of the whole series. You really grow to legitimately care about all of these characters in this one, making for all the more tragic an ending when all hell breaks loose in the end. So yeah, this was another really solid outing, and it was a nice change in pace going back to a different time period and discovering the truth of what happened to those two girls when they were kids. And yeah, this movie also introduces the first instance of it making no sense that the characters are still filming this footage with this one's big finale, but it was executed so well that I was willing to forgive it.

This comes in complete contrast to that similar feeling with the finale of movie 4, but more on that in a sec. First, I'd like to say how overall genuinely impressed I was by the first three movies, not only in execution, but also in how they've introduced this whole over-arching mythology that continued to gradually expand more and more with each film, tying everything together so neatly. So while I didn't intend on doing so initially, after watching the first three films, I very much had a desire to revisit the second half of this series, and see how the story as a whole really came together. And that brings us to movie 4, which is currently the only movie I've previously written a full review of to date, and yeah, to say that that review is now outdated is putting it mildly.

Where as before I wrote the fourth movie off as just being sort of an awesomely bad experience, now with the context of the first three present, I can see that it was actually just a bad experience. Suddenly, all of the criticisms I had seen hurled its way made so much sense, because really, this movie didn't hold up all too well upon being revisited at all.

For one thing, the writing is completely lazy in this one compared to the first three. The characters record all of this footage, but then proceed to never actually bother reviewing any of that footage, meaning that it's all literally only being filmed for us, the viewer. So there's that, and there's also the fact that absolutely none of the characters in this movie actually listen to one another, which only becomes increasingly bizarre and frustrating as the movie goes along. And by that, I mean something as simple as a husband trying to tell his wife that a knife just fell from the ceiling goes ignored, as she completely doesn't process what he's saying at all and just tells him to go to bed. Or when the girl is desperately trying to tell her father about all of the crazy stuff that's been happening to her, he talks to her as if she's not saying any of that at all, just ignoring her every plea.

The only other instance of this really happening in the series is when the wife in movie 3 won't watch the footage, but at least there she has the context that she's reached her breaking point, so you can see where she's coming from. Here, though? It's just so that the film can continue to move along without having to juggle too many things. All these factors just feel like the writers just introduced way too much with this movie, but didn't have the energy to actually follow through with any of the characters actually having to interact with one another or, alternatively, even react at all to any of the footage being shot, so they just said screw it, and didn't bother addressing it at all, taking the laziest route possible. And what makes this even more frustrating is that movie 2 already tackled and successfully balanced a larger cast with constantly recording footage being reviewed, so to see them drop the ball with this so badly in this outing is really just disappointing and inexcusable.

And as I alluded to before, the final scene in this movie makes absolutely no sense why it's being filmed at all. And yeah, I mentioned how it really didn't either in movie 3, but at least there, it started out making sense, it was only as the scene proceeded along that we eventually reached a point where, realistically, he really probably woulda stopped worrying about recording everything.

Here? She's literally dragged out of her room by the demon, then in the next shot, is out of her house screaming for help as she runs to the neighbors house to save her dad, only for some reason deciding she needed to bust out her camera and shoot it all first. And yeah, like most of the footage shot in this movie, it was done in a way that feels like it's solely for us, the viewer, to actually see what happened, and not something that feels organically integrated into the movie, as was the case with the first three films. This really shows that, after a certain point, they really probably should have just abandoned the whole "found footage" aspect to this series, as what they were trying to do was just way too big to make a whole lotta sense being shot in that way.

That said, it wasn't all bad, if I'm being fair. For instance, some of the new gimmicks introduced, such as the Kinect vision, were actually quite clever little inclusions. But really, other than that, yeah, movie 4 really didn't hold up too well. And in fact, not only would I call it the worst in the series, but in hindsight, also the most pointless, as several elements just left me scratching my head as to why they transpired the way they did. Things such as Hunter apparently going up for adoption after the events of the second movie. Why? Was it really just so they could lure the girl over so they could have their big "virgin sacrifice"? Because, really, I'm pretty sure that there had to be far easier ways for them to accomplish that goal, ways that didn't involve them putting Hunter up for adoption and having to go through the whole process of bringing him back over to their side, even though they already had him after the end of the second film.

But yeah, that was movie 4, and that brings us to the fifth movie, which I have a separate yet far different little rant about as well, but I'll get to that in a minute. First, I want to start off by saying that where Paranormal Activity 4 was in all honesty hurt by going back and watching the first three movies, the opposite is quite true here, as the prior knowledge of those movies actually really strengthened Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones.

This one definitely feels the most overall ingrained in all of the brewing mythology of the series, so knowing everything that had lead up to this point brings a whole new light to everything going on in this fifth outing. Now, that said, is it a good outing? Well, let's just say that where my feelings may have changed on the fourth on this matter, I can whole heartedly assure you that this one still holds up as a legitimate example of a film that is so bad, it's actually kind of good.

It certainly features by far the most unintentionally silliest imagery in the series, images such as the dog being pressed against the ceiling against its will, or our main antagonist suddenly materializing in the room via cheap photoshop effects (though the gangsters shot-gunning down all of those witches may well have been intentionally hilarious). And in terms of the found footage aspect, I'll just flat out say that the entire second half of this movie even being filmed makes absolutely no god damn sense at all! But even so, it was all so enjoyable that you're willing to forgive it this time around, and quite frankly, the change in scenery they chose for this film made for a much needed breath of fresh air for the series.

Now, as for that rant, one issue I take as it concerns this movie is not with the movie itself, but rather, with the continued insistence that some people have that this movie is merely a spin-off, and not an actual legitimate entry in the series. And to that I say, clearly every single person insisting as such either has never actually seen this movie and made that opinion based solely on the trailers, or they did watch it, but weren't paying a lick of attention at all.

For one, this movie picks up the series' mythology directly where both movies 3 and 4 left off, further expanding on the aspects of the witches coven introduced by those movies. And it also formally introduces key elements that come into play with the sixth movie, meaning that its placement in the series ties directly in sequence with the other films. And the movie makes direct reference to this taking place after the events of movie 4, and also features enough references to the other films that it's placement in the series is more than prevalent, such as the mysterious traveling box of tapes showing up near them, including the Katie and Kristi tape from movie 3, as well as the sole surviving girl from movie 2 even being called in to help out. (In fact, come to think of it, it's interesting how that girl from movie 2 is actually the only character out of every single one of these movies to make it out both alive and un-possessed. Huh.) And that's not even taking into account that the final climactic scene takes place both in the grandma's house from movie 3 and the original house from the first film, tying directly into the latter's ending as well.

Honestly, the only thing that really makes this movie any different from the others outside of following a bunch of Latino characters instead of another wealthy white family (which, if that's why some are considering it a spin-off, then, racist much?) is that this movie doesn't include the nightly breakdowns monitoring the ongoing paranormal activity while everyone's asleep. But, given the context within the movie, it wouldn't make sense for them to do so anyways, so there's really nothing lost there either. And I suppose this is also the only movie that doesn't actually feature Toby as the main ghost, but it otherwise ties in so snugly with everything else surrounding that entire storyline that it definitely feels like the natural progression that keeps the series moving forward. So all in all, yeah, spin-off? Certainly not. But anyways, tangent aside, no, it's not as good as the first three, but it's still quite enjoyable.

And that brings us to the sixth and final film in the series, The Ghost Dimension. And this is the movie that I probably have the most mixed feelings on. It's definitely a return to the more traditional format, only introducing a new aspect in the form of a camera that can actually see the paranormal activity, which it turns out is apparently mostly just a black blob of bad CGI effects. So on the one hand, this probably shows us way too much, though on the other, it's at least showing us a new perspective, while also addressing the issue as to why they're continuing to film throughout the whole thing even as shit hits the fan, so that the characters themselves and not just us, the viewers, can actually see what they're up against.

And in terms of cast, this is also a mixed bag there as well. On the one hand, we have characters who continue to play ignorant and try and act like all of this is just in their heads, even after they've seen proof of it all actually happening for real, which can be really frustrating. But on the other hand, you have characters like the little girl, who quite frankly is probably the best actor in the whole series, and naturally jumps between sweet and innocent child, to genuinely creepy and menacing possessed girl. So they're not all obnoxious, and in fact, I actually found most of the cast to be quite likeable, so at least that much is good, but those few frustrating moments do really stand out as just, again, inexcusably poor and lazy writing.

That said, I wouldn't call the writing on the whole in this one poor on the level of the fourth movie, as the way it ties in with the series is really sort of ingenious. They discover that same said mysterious traveling box of tapes, and decide to go through them and give them a watch, including them literally watching Paranormal Activity 3 at various points. But then it cuts ahead to after the events of the third movie, as Katie and Kristi were being brainwashed by this mysterious cult, and the way this winds up tying into the plot of the sixth movie is actually pretty neat.

That the movie fumbles with its ending is then made all the more disheartening as a result of these otherwise clever aspects throughout, but yeah, this movie's biggest downfall definitely comes in the form the big finale, which also happens to be the series wrap-up (at least, as of this writing, that's reportedly the case). And, well, yeah, let's just say that it's a bit of a letdown.

Where the previous three movies were all building up this whole witches coven aspect, and the fact that they were building an army for something, this movie completely disregards that entire aspect to focus back solely on Toby and his singular goal, which it turns out was just to become human. And... that's it. At least, that's as far as this movie explains it. But to what end is this his goal? Is he brought to life in order to lead said army? But even if that's the case, to what means? What is the army's actual purpose? We can only speculate. And I'm not saying that the movie had to answer every question raised throughout the series. But that it chose to answer so few, and even left many go completely ignored, made for a pretty unsatisfying conclusion to an otherwise quite intriguing series of films.

So yeah, those are my thoughts on the series, and I have to say, overall, despite some of its hiccups along the way, I quite enjoyed the ride. I loved just how connected all of the movies are, and found discovering new information behind the gradually building myths behind the demon and the witches and such to be very interesting, and in many regards, well executed. There's actually a lot of attention to detail as far as continuity goes for the most part, which made for an overall satisfying watch, even if the ultimate conclusion in the end wasn't so satisfying itself.

But yeah, it's interesting how going back and watching those first three movies so drastically changed my stance on the series. Where before I wrote it all off as being pretty dumb yet fun, now I can see that the series actually started off quite smart with its smaller beginnings, reaching its peak with the third installment, and only after that point started to get a bit too big for its own good, where some of the filmmakers struggled to keep a nice, coherent balance. I can definitely see where some people are coming from with their harsher criticisms of the later films, though I still would personally say that some people may be a bit too harsh on this series at times. All in all, it was fun, and left me with a lot to discuss, so I was left pretty impressed by enough of what I saw to say that it was worth it. And I don't know where they would go from here, what with Toby being human now and all, but I honestly wouldn't mind seeing one more shot at a more conclusive finale that could more fully tie together all the major aspects introduced in the series, and to what ends the master plan was ultimately leading to. But I'm not holding my breath on that.