The last movie in the “Paranormal Activity” franchise opened on Friday, October 23, but whether it truly is the end of the series remains to be seen. While the sixth installment entitled “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension” does close out the storyline that started in the first film, never say never when it comes to sequels, reboots or re-launches. All in all, the series had an amazing run and helped the genre in many ways. Unfortunately, it did some real damage too. Here are the high’s and low’s of its legacy:
It proved scary doesn’t have to be expensive
Taking a page from Roger Corman’s playbook, as well capitalizing on the tremendous success of 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project”, writer/director Oren Peli shrewdly came up with a scary movie idea that needed very little cash to be effective. Indeed, the first “Paranormal Activity” film was so simple, it was genius. A young married couple’s suburban home becomes haunted and the frightened duo sets out to chronicle the events with their video camera. The film’s amateurish qualities, what with those two doing most of the taping, gave the film intimacy and immediacy, as well as a sense of realism rarely found in horror tales.
Peli did a magnificent job creating thrills and chills with such simplicity. A bedroom door slamming on its own became a huge fright. The time-code showing a somnambulist wife standing for hours staring at her husband while he slept was as eerie as any shenanigans from Freddy or Jason. It played almost like a documentary, which was its intent, and it swung the door wide open for even more “found footage” films. Eli’s ability to give the audience the same POV as his filming characters added empathy and a sense of the visceral to every jump scare and “boo” onscreen.
The original movie was reportedly shot for a mere $15,000, a figure likely low-balled when you consider there were extra finishing expenses and some big special effects added after Steven Spielberg caught a rough cut and loved it. (We should all have Hollywood’s biggest director as such an advocate.) Nonetheless, Peli’s simple tricks were quite a treat and it not only made $193 million at the box office, but its success spawned other filmmakers to try and make more with less in the horror genre.
It put horror back in the forefront
Because of the low investment/high return equation, studios and production companies produced more and more horror. It started a trend where practically every weekend there was a new horror film either premiering theatrically or on VOD. And most of them brazenly raked in the dough. Television soon realized the huge audience clamoring for more and more horror so the network’s started dotting their prime time schedules with tons of high concept horror. The success of the likes of “American Horror Story”, “Supernatural”, and “From Dusk till Dawn: The Series”, just to name three, benefited greatly from the audience’s now insatiable craving for all things horror that the “Paranormal Activity” franchise helped stimulate.
Ghosts trumped gore
Some believe that the more blood, the more effective the horror. But if you want to expand the audience for the genre, the scares can’t be tied to plasma. The threat of bodily harm almost always plays greater than actual bodily harm in thrillers and horror, and Peli realized that. Thus, his franchise always concentrated on the eerie rather than the gory. And that expanded the horror genre to audiences that were usually turned off by too much bloodletting. The “Paranormal Activity” franchise attracted women, couples, and older audiences the way few scary movies had in the last couple of decades.
Peli however may have missed the opportunity to make his franchise as lauded as his first film. His failure to truly expand where the series could go hurt its subsequent outings. Here’s where things went wrong:
The franchise failed to broaden its idea
By focusing so much on the demon-plagued sisters Katie and Kristie, the franchise missed its opportunity to take the ghosts and camcorders idea farther. After the first two movies examined the modern lives of the troubled siblings, the third in the series went back 20 years to tell the origins story of the troubled girls. Knowing that the two girls would survive that film truly limited any sense of danger or even drama onscreen, and frankly, the girls weren’t all that interesting to begin with. Certainly not enough to bank the whole enchilada on.
Instead, imagine if Peli and his colleagues had expanded the world of “Paranormal Activity” to tell ghost stories that took place in other venues besides tract suburban housing. Hotels, schools, office buildings – they are all infested with cameras these days and could’ve chronicled all kinds of things that go bump in the night. In this surveillance nation of ours the possibilities for all kinds of poltergeist “found footage” could’ve made each new movie a wholly fresh fright fest.
Sadly, tethering the franchise to those girls really bogged it down. The filmmakers themselves kept having to add more into the mix to keep it exciting. Cults of witches, devil worship, everything but the kitchen sink and the Illuminati started getting tossed into the soup. The series lost its focus and its simplicity. And the special effects got bigger and more expensive too with each subsequent outing – six in six years, whew! True, the filmmakers are surely laughing all the way to the bank, but other than the first film, none of the sequels comes close to standing as a horror classic.
The series helped bludgeon the found footage genre to death
Peli has become a horror mogul due to the success of all the movies that his Blumhouse Productions has fostered. The franchises for “Insidious”, “Sinister” and “The Purge” are all part of Peli’s making, and some of those films have been truly superb. (Granted, the sequels – not so much.) Still, all of his horror movie money has enabled Blumhouse to branch out even more and even produce a lot of A list films that aren’t genre films. Last year’s Oscar-winning “Whiplash” was one of them, and Blumhouse is one of Hollywood’s premiere power players.
But the franchise that started all of this also must take responsibility for the bad it’s fostered along with the good. It spawned every wannabe with a camcorder out there to think he could make a “found footage” shocker, and aside from some estimable winners like “Chronicle” and the “V/H/S’ series, so much of this subgenre strains to make any sense or create genuine scares. Instead they too often merely create an exceptional sense of nausea, both in how shakily they’re shot (“Quarantine”) or how shoddily they’re conceived (“The Gallows” and dozens more).
Ultimately, at the end of it all, Peli and the “Paranormal Activity” franchise have significantly broadened horror for the better. Blumhouse is so prolific it’s scary, and their roster is the envy of any production company or studio in Tinsel Town or anywhere else in the world. And “Paranormal Activity” will always be remembered as a genuine classic of modern horror. It’s just a shame that none of its subsequent sequels in the series came close to equaling it. Instead, with each lesser return, they slammed the door shut on greatness faster than that demon did in the first one. Still, every horror fan should be thankful for the first film. And all the fond, fearful memories it gave the movie-going public.