We are nearing the end of Shocktober 2013. In the run up to the final week, I realized I have a ton of movies I still want to watch. So, with plenty of unused vacation time to spare, I took Monday and Tuesday off from work. Throughout this mini-vacation I’ve created for myself, I’m going to be watching a ton of Shocktober movies. I’ve set myself a goal of writing up one blog post for each day, similar to Tiny’s Shocktober Musings posts.
Here we have Part I, my “found footage fest.” Found footage movies get a bad rap. Sure, there’s plenty of dreck in the subgenre and it inspires needless sequels that are churned out faster than they can be written. But when the format is handled right, it can be an absolutely terrifying experience that gets under your skin.
Let me know what you think about the found footage genre in the comments below and follow me around the internet with the links below.
Chapter 1: Paranormal Activity (2009)
My first experience with Paranormal Activity was on October 25th, 2009 at a Regal theater that used to employ me and has since been converted into an L.A. Fitness. I saw the movie in the middle of the day and left the theater visibly shaking. When I got home I sat in my bedroom. I work nights and black out my windows to appease my weird sleep habits. A fan in my room blew some papers off my desk and I jumped just as much as I had in the theater an hour earlier.
I saw it again 5 days later and I now make it a point to see it every year.
It’s hard to say how or why exactly I was affected so much by this movie. Growing up, my mother was (and continues to be) a big believer in the supernatural/paranormal. Throughout my childhood, the fear that lived inside her rubbed off heavily on me. Every dark hallway housed a ghost or some unspeakable evil. I’ve since outgrown those fears but a part of me still wants to believe. So when a high quality, immersive work of supernatural fiction is presented to me, I latch onto it for as long as the effect will last.
After countless viewings, I still appreciate this movie on several levels. While some of the scares have lost their effect on me, my appreciation for the independent filmmaking of it and the storytelling that takes place has only grown. Oren Peli not only created a work that proves to be an example of fantastic tension building, he also built it against the backdrop of a very interesting relationship film.
The way the horror elements rise as Micah and Katie’s relationship deteriorates in equal pace really ups the movie’s rewatchability factor for me. Even though I fully admit there are chinks in the armor of the storytelling (Micah’s sudden control issues and inferiority complex stretches the bounds of believability, for instance), I still get a wealth of enjoyment out of this movie and will continue to honor it every Shocktober for as long as the storytelling and scares still thrill me.
Chapter 2: Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)
Where its predecessor is a good case study in pacing and relationship destruction, Paranormal Activity 2 is an interesting study of diminishing returns. The first viewing hits most of its marks. But once you are wise to its tricks, it’s hard to find a deeper connection. I applaud the movie for sticking to the mythology set up by the original. A little retconning takes place (Katie remembers her sister crying all the time where in the original the demon was focused solely on Katie), but it’s forgivable in light of the franchise’s more egregious changes in the mythology later.
I still applaud the movie and the filmmakers for their choice to make the follow up a prequel. I thought it was a clever storytelling choice and an intriguing way to answer some of the questions and expand on the mythology set out in the first Paranormal Activity.
Adding a dog, baby and a teenage daughter to the mix suited the story and the horror well. It gave the movie a slightly more intense feel than the original, which is a decent trade off for the relationship story of the original. There is clearly more of an effort put on scares that don’t have much lasting appeal, though. I would have preferred a more focused story.
In the end, it’s a worthy enough follow up to one of my favorite horror movies.
Chapter 3: Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
At the time of this writing, I just finished watching Paranormal Activity 3 for the 3rd time in my life. Maybe it’s due to my poor memories of the 4th installment, but this was a surprisingly pleasant experience. I’m getting ahead of myself though.
Paranormal Activity 3 was the first movie in the franchise that the Catfish directing team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman took over. The script (penned by Christopher Landon, who also wrote PA2 and PA4) took the story to 1988 and explored the haunted childhood of Katie and Kristi.
I had a lukewarm reaction when I saw the movie for the first time in the theater. I can get past the idea that VHS-based camcorders from the late 80s can produce HD-quality images and sound. I just didn’t like the way the movie took liberties with the established mythology.
Oren Peli created a demon that was obsessed with Katie from her childhood into her adulthood. After some backpedaling in Paranormal Activity 2, the story began to form that the family has a sordid history filled with witchcraft and evil pacts in exchange with wealth and prosperity.
The changes in the first sequel served the original movie well in that it explained some of the mysterious things from the original work. It did so in a way that leads the viewer to rewatch the first movie with a new perspective. In short, it enhanced the mythology of the demon in a way that wasn’t too far a departure from the established history of the first movie.
The third entry in the franchise seems to use the mythology as guidelines for its own story. The movie takes place in 1988. The two previous movies established that the girls (particularly Katie) were haunted by a demon. The movies establish why the demon was haunting them and what it wanted with them. There are lines of dialogue describing the childhood of the girls as including a black mass standing at the foot of Katie’s bed (“always Katie’s bed, never Kristi’s”), Kristi crying all the time and a fire that destroyed their house.
There is no fire in the 3rd Paranormal Activity and there are no scenes featuring a black mass standing at the foot of Katie’s bed. In fact, Katie has little to do with interacting with the actual demon. In 1988, the demon was Kristi’s imaginary friend Toby. Instead of expanding on the established mythology, the movie continues to expand it to the point that it loses itself and its audience.
That’s how I feel about the storytelling, at least. For the most part, the actual scares are interesting. The addition of an oscillating camera adds a new layer to the horror that works surprisingly well. There are also some nice nods to Poltergeist thrown in that don’t impede on the classic’s brilliance. There’s also a bloody Mary sequence that is terrifying and induces a nice bit of terrifying nostalgia, for me at least.
All in all, this installment gets better upon repeat viewings. It requires you to check some of your knowledge of the mythology at the door but the trade off here is a series of well-constructed scares that lead to a strong climax.
Chapter 4: Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)
What a mess.
Beware, I am about to spoil Paranormal Activity 4 in this section. If you haven’t seen it yet, proceed with caution.
The first time I saw Paranormal Activity 4 was at a midnight screening last year. I actually took the night off from work so that I could see it. I was excited because the franchise has become a staple of my Shocktober and for better or worse, the movies always seem to at least deliver when it comes to scares.
Paranormal Activity 4 was highly disappointing. The movie is the first true sequel to Paranormal Activity in that it takes place after the events of the first movie. For the first time in the franchise, we get to see what Katie and Hunter have been up to after the night Katie killed Micah and took her nephew.
I’ve seen this movie twice and I still can’t tell you what she has been up to. In classic PA sequel fashion, PA4 takes what was established in previous movies and plays fast and loose with the mythology. The twist here is that instead of changing what has been established, the movie presents questions without bothering to answer any of them. In many ways, PA4 feels like the follow up to a sequel that was never made.
The movie features a family with a bizarre, unseen neighbor with a small child. Spoiler Alert: It’s Katie and we’re led to believe the kid, Robbie, is Hunter from PA2. Robbie ends up staying with his neighbors (teen girl Alex, parents, and 6 year old Wyatt) for a while and that’s when the paranormal stuff starts.
Alex has a friend named Ben who provides comic relief by hitting on her throughout the movie. The biggest sign that this movie is deeply flawed is when you realize the relationship between Ben and Alex is the best part of the movie. That is the last thing you want to say about a horror movie.
The movie is an hour and a half plus and by the time there’s about 20 minutes left, PA4 still feels like it’s in “set up” mode. The timeframe of this movie is noticeably longer than the others in the series. There are make 15 “nights” depicted in the movie. Whenever they label the night on the screen, the audience searches for signs of scares. But there are hardly any. The big “scare” moments are just that, “big scare moments.” There are barely any scenes that build the tension toward the scares. Every shocking moment is sudden and unearned. This makes them fall flat about 98% of the time the other 2% are one trick ponies.
About midway through the movie it’s revealed that Wyatt is actually Hunter and the entire movie is about Katie getting Hunter back. How Hunter ever got away from her and how Katie came to have Robbie in her custody are two questions that are never answer or even addressed, for that matter.
The movie ends abruptly with a really cheap, unearned climax that feels like it was the result of a hasty reshoot after the real ending was somehow erased. As such, I’m not going to honor it with any further discussion.
In its stead, I want to gripe about product placement in this movie. If you know me, you may know how much blatant product placement bothers me. The Xbox Kinect is featured heavily in this movie as a new way to monitor the demon. Basically, the Kinect’s sensors are visible when the camera has its night vision enabled.
I can appreciate them making it somewhat integral to the plot but its introductory scene really got to me. When Ben shows it to the kids, Wyatt exclaims, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” That line alone makes me cringe. Considering this is the 4th Paranormal Activity movie in so many years, it’s not a shock that the filmmakers and producers are open to selling out. It’s just the complete lack of creativity in their shilling that irritates me.
In the end, Paranormal Activity 4 is a bust. My Obsessive Grade for it is a shaky Stream on Netflix. It’s only redeemable quality is the comic relief of the girl and her friend and one or two scenes that are better than the movie ever strived to be.
Chapter 5: Non-PA Found Footage
My first viewing of V/H/S was actually a midnight screening at the Landmark Keystone Art Cinema, which is my favorite theater in Indianapolis. I plan on writing a more in depth review sometime this week. For now, however, I have an anecdote to share. At the midnight screening I won a poster of the movie. After the movie ended, I wasn’t terribly impressed. A few days later, my nephew, a toddler, got sick and vomited on the poster. I like to joke that this was a good indicator of my feelings toward the movie.
My problem with V/H/S was due to two things. First, the movie broke the unspoken rule of found footage movies by being around 2 hours long. I am a firm believer that no found footage film should exceed a 90-minute runtime by any considerable margin. The second thing that bothered me was the lack of character development in the frame story of the thieves in the house. I also hated the Skype chat segment with a burning passion.
But when I saw it again on Netflix earlier this month, I liked it a little more. The bits I didn’t like occupied far less screen time than the bits I like.
The sequel to V/H/S is much better than the original movie. The frame story actually serves a purpose and is actually frightening. Not to mention, the runtime obeys the aforementioned rule of found footage movies by clocking in around the 95-minute mark.
The segments are better across the board. It includes a great zombie segment that makes me wish its concept were a full-fledged zombie movie. It also includes a really inventive sci-fi ghost story. It’s a much more consistent than its predecessor.
Cloverfield was born out of a trip to Japan that J.J. Abrams took. He saw the hold that Godzilla had on the country and thought that the U.S. needed something similar and thus Cloverfield was created. The movie has a divisive effect on those who see it. I understand the criticisms but there’s something about the movie that I love. My favorite thing about the movie is the way the love story frames the monster movie. We see bits and pieces of the main character trying to save the woman he loves and are given cuts to footage of the pair’s best day together. It really helps the audience get behind the character’s dumbass decision to stay in the city.
The granddaddy of found footage movies is a hard movie to pin down. I first saw it in the theater in 1999 amidst the first (but far from last) reports of people passing out as a result of the movie’s shaky, handheld cam style. The lead up to that theater viewing was almost as effective and frightening as the movie itself. The viral campaign had a great effect on my anticipation for it. My junior high mind bought into every piece of information and fake documentary I watched.
The actual movie left a lasting impression on me. The last shot still sends a chill down my spine. With time, however, some of the movie’s luster has faded. The characters have become less relatable and more annoying. With movies like Paranormal Activity putting an emphasis on the characters’ relationships, The Blair Witch Project almost falls by the wayside.
But the legacy of the film lives on and while I don’t make it a staple of the Shocktober season for me, I find myself gravitating to it more often than I find myself turned away by it.
Epilogue: Apollo 18 (2012)
I put this as an epilogue solely because it is a good lead-in to tomorrow’s 4 Days of Blood post. I won’t say anything further except that it should hopefully post earlier in the day than this.
That last sentence may not seem pertinent to the topic of Apollo 18, but I’m watching the movie right now and have an overwhelming feeling that if I pay my full attention to it, I will come out of the experience full of regret and anger.
About 20 minutes into Apollo 18, I was bored. I shouldn’t have been, though. I am an outspoken supporter of the found footage subgenre. In addition to that small bit of fandom, I’m also a big fan of space movies. I just don’t think these two niches should ever be victim to an arranged marriage.
Within the first 20 minutes of Apollo 18, the two astronauts on screen began to act like characters in a found footage movie. These are trained astronauts who are deemed worthy of piloting a spacecraft to the moon and they’re wondering how a piece of equipment found its way on the floor in a weak attempt at establishing tension.
The actual conflict of the movie starts when the astronauts discover an abandoned Russian spacecraft in a crater and then find themselves victim to a parasite. That’s as far as I’ll go with my description and probably my review as a whole. As you’ll see in tomorrow’s post, horror and space have had a working relationship for a while. I’ll make it so you won’t have to bother with Apollo 18 to get your space/horror fix.
Right now the two astronauts are wrestling around and have no contact with anyone. I wish that included me.
And now it’s over. The runtime of the movie on Netflix is listed as 1hr 26m. The end credits start rolling at 1hr 18m. Wow.
I can’t in good conscience assign a grade to this movie. I spaced it out so much that my opinion wouldn’t have much validity to it. If I were to devote my full attention to it, I would give it a “Don’t Even Bother” with the caveat that it’s still (probably) better than Chernobyl Diaries. Oh, how I hated Chernobyl Diaries.
If you’re a fan of horror, you should really check out The Obsessive Viewer Podcast’s interview with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s John Dugan.