(Warning: spoilers for all five Paranormal Activity films ahead)
I'm smart enough to know that we're never going to see a found footage horror film where the footage is indeed legitimate (at least, not without obtaining it from a shady source), but every now and then the presentation is so good, I can at least AT TIMES forget I'm watching a fictional piece. The Blair Witch Project is one such case, and while the movie isn't the best of the bunch, I was charmed by the way Evil Things was sent out to reviewers, with a letter from the FBI agent tasked with solving the case, offering us a chance to review the footage they had and see if we could provide any insight. I like the idea that I can suspend my disbelief, in other words, especially when so many entries in this sub-genre never afford me the chance. For example, in two weeks we'll be seeing Devil's Due, and whether it's good or bad is besides the point - I'll never for a second forget I'm watching a scripted horror film, since it has Matt Saracen from Friday Night Lights as its star and Bernard from Lost as the priest who marries him to Carrie from Go On.
But I want to talk about the original Paranormal Activity, which might have been the closest to full blown duped I ever got when I first saw it in October of 2007. That's not a typo - the movie didn't hit theaters until the fall of 2009, but we lucky Screamfest attendees got to be the very first audience to see it, scheduled on a Sunday afternoon between a generic Dutch haunted house movie (Dood Eind) and the woeful zombie flick Days of Darkness. In other words, not exactly the most glamorous slot in the festival, and certainly not where you'd expect to find "the next big thing." The fact that the film didn't even have an IMDb page at that time just made it all the more mysterious - was this indeed a legit found footage movie flying in under the radar?
Part of what made us momentarily wonder was how low key it was: the scares weren't built around visible ghosts or objects flying around a room via CGI - something as simple as a light turning on by itself in the middle of the night was enough to give us a minor jolt. While many horror films tend to give a big scare right at the top to get us in the mood, director Oren Peli (a first time filmmaker who hasn't directed a feature since, unless you count his seemingly aborted Area 51) masterfully structured his scares so that it's always getting just a little bit spookier than the one before, so when the finale comes around, we're completely sucked in but not exhausted (incidentally, Blair Witch is one of the very few others to do this right). Also, it was believable that they were filming everything - when the movie began some creepy things have already happened, and Micah has bought the camera as a means to catch it when it happens again. As I've said a million times, I don't scare easily when watching this stuff, but PA is one of the exceptions - when Katie gets pulled out of bed and dragged down the hall, I lost my shit.
It also had a different, vastly superior ending than the one most of you saw, with a stupid CGI ghost face at the end. This final shot was changed somewhere along the line, and the original ending lives on only via Youtube (a third option, with Katie slitting her throat, is available on the Blu-ray and is also better than the theatrical). But I guess no one minded much - the film went on to gross over $100 million, more or less killing the Saw series in the process and taking its place as the new franchise that fans could count on every October. Sequels followed in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and Paranormal Activity 5 was seemingly ready to follow suit for October 2013, but then it was delayed for a full year, leaving a giant hole in this past October's genre lineup.
However, we wouldn't have to wait another 12 months for another dose of this series' increasingly convoluted mythology. If you stuck around through the credits during Paranormal Activity 4 (assuming you hadn't walked out during the movie itself; it is generally and rightfully considered to be the worst of the series) you would have seen a quick scene in Spanish that teased what was then only referred to as a "Latino-themed spinoff" entry. That film became Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, which hit theaters this past weekend. Given that we hadn't had a big screen horror film in months (the unfortunate Carrie remake being the last) it was fun to just go enjoy some scares with a full crowd again, even if it wasn't exactly a home run. While it was certainly an improvement over the fourth film, my general weariness of found footage couldn't be overcome with its stock scares (any time a character pans back and forth, you know something is suddenly going to be in his face when he makes the return "sweep") and lack of any real tension - the hero seems more charmed than terrified by the fact that a neighbor's mysterious death has coincided with his new-found super strength and balance.
But the real issue is that it's not really a spinoff. Sure, our characters are new and seemingly unrelated to Katie and Kristy (the haunted sisters at the center of the first three films), but you could say the same thing about PA4. And as the film goes on, it becomes more and more like a true sequel - to the extent that it takes a working knowledge of the first three films to follow its narrative. A character from PA2 shows up with only the bare minimum of an introduction, a key location from PA3 is revealed to be the same one our new heroes are looking for, and the final scene sends our protagonist through a "Time Travel Door" (...) where he ends up taking an active role in the climax of the first film! Hey, remember a few paragraphs back when I was talking about how I almost thought the original PA was legit? Now we have time travel? What the hell happened here?
And that's part of the problem with this series as it has gone on - there is almost nothing believable about it, yet they retain the first person aesthetic that cripples its ability to create new scares or fully formed ideas (or characters; this one has the biggest cast yet but it's hard to get a firm grasp on many of them or even how they relate to each other). To its credit, Marked Ones does away with the overdone "Night #1, Night #2..." gimmick, and at no point does anyone set up a bunch of cameras to "make sure we get everything!". Sure, this means there's zero reason for the character to be filming his terrifying trip at the end (they don't even bother with the "I need the light to see" excuse), but at least it keeps director Christopher Landon from relying on the series' visual shortcuts to spook the audience (I remember the worried murmur that spread through the crowd on the "Night #1" graphic in PA2 - even though nothing happened, it was still like a scare of its own).
If Paramount is following the usual pattern of these films, they haven't even started shooting the "true" fifth entry yet (they're usually shot in the early summer for an October release), so there's hopefully still time to do something different for it. Marked Ones failed to take the #1 slot at the box office, unheard of for these January horror releases, which always do well just because horror fans are hungry for ANYTHING after the usual November/December drought (even fellow FF entry Devil Inside managed a bigger debut, and at #1 to boot), and even somewhat embarrassing considering it's part of a huge franchise and lost out to a film on its 7th weekend (Frozen). Hardly a dud since they're so cheap to make, but a clear sign that interest is waning and that they have to shake things up if they want the series to continue.
For starters, they can start solving more mysteries than they create. The series had already been plagued with too many unanswered questions (are we ever going to see what caused that mysterious fire? Or know how that damn box of VHS tapes survived it? And can we get an explanation for which one of the kids in PA4 was Hunter? Because if Hunter was indeed Wyatt, who the hell was Robbie and why did Katie give Wyatt/Hunter up for adoption? And how does that even happen when she's not the mother?), and now this one adds not only time travel to the mix (ugh), but also the idea that the "marked ones" have superpowers (and long stringy things coming out of their eyes, I guess). At this point, the next film could be nothing more than Oren Peli, Jason Blum, and Chris Landon (who wrote all of the sequels) conducting a lengthy Q&A session and there STILL might be a few things that have gone unexplained.
See, the Saw films (easy to compare to since they also churned one out every year and were based on a complicated mythology structure, unlike say the Friday the 13th films) always had a pretty healthy give and take with the audience - things from the previous film were explained while new mysteries were raised, always satisfying our curiosity while teasing things to make us come back for more. The PAs, on the whole, maybe provide one answer for every five new questions, which is not only frustrating for those who give a shit about such things, but also make them rather impenetrable to newcomers. Sure, Saw was guilty of this as well - but they never had a "spinoff" entry that was supposed to bring in new fans. Prometheus is a better reference point; love or hate the film, you have to admit that it at least lived up to its spinoff roots - at no point was the viewer required to have working knowledge of the Alien series in order to follow its story. Marked Ones is dubbed a spinoff but ultimately seems more essential to the overall mythology than the previous film - I pity the poor bastard who goes in blind.
So even though the film made back its production budget in a day or two, it's still hard to look at this experiment as a true success. The Latino angle was supposed to entice that audience (the same one that turned Instructions Not Included - which was IN Spanish to boot - into a smash hit a few months ago), but it seemed to only really bring out the PA die-hards and the usual horror fans who see everything anyway. It should have at LEAST pulled in the same amount as PA4 did in its first weekend (29m), but if it sinks like a stone (as most January horror films do - last year's Texas Chainsaw opened at #1 and was at #36 three weekends later) that will be about what it makes in its entire run. Thus, maybe the best thing to do (besides just end it and label PA5 as "The Final Chapter") is to drop the found footage aesthetic, or at least split it like Lovely Molly, and deliver a real horror film that ties up some of the loose ends while giving us something truly fresh. The producers claim they have an end game planned but can't jump to it right away, which to me is just a nicer way of saying that as long as these things make all their money back in two days, they'll keep spinning their wheels.
Alas. With this "spinoff" not re-energizing the series as they hoped, we can expect them to go back to the same old, more successful shit with Paranormal Activity 5, and probably PA6 as well, with audiences sighing their way through more people being thrown at the camera and hoping that the promised endgame at least makes it worth their while. But even if it is, it's a shame it had to get there through so much repetition and recycling. The first PA was a giant hit not just because it was scary, but because it gave us something different and new when everything was remakes and sequels (indeed, its direct competition on its first two weekends in wide release was Saw VI and The Stepfather remake, and it crippled both). Maybe Marked Ones underperformed not because it was different - but that it wasn't different ENOUGH. If so, now is the time for them to reinvent themselves before this once promising franchise is the one getting its ass handed to it by the new guy.
(Warning: spoilers for all five Paranormal Activity films ahead)