found footage

Review: Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension 3D

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Paranormal Activity The Ghost Dimension

The Pitch: We absolutely saw you coming. While you’re here, can we interest you in some magic beans?

The Review: Hallowe’en. Season of ghouls, ghosts and spectres (although this year it was dominated by a SPECTRE of a different kind). What, then, could be more appropriate to the season than exhuming the corpse of a once popular franchise and attempting to wring as much cash out of its rotting corpse as possible? When the Saw franchise had become fatally worn out through familiarity, Paranormal Activity appeared at just the right time to fill the vacancy left behind. Oren Peil’s attempt at heightening the reality of the found footage genre as much as possible served up a winning combination of scares and mood that had many cinemagoers questioning whether or not this was real. (These people do exist, and many of them thought The Martian was a true story.) Sadly the studios have long since run out of enough ideas to be able to churn out one of these films a year, so after a gap of nearly two years the final film of the franchise (or so we’re promised) limps into view.

There is a plot, but not one that feels the need to concern itself with too much in the way of character development. After an opening scene that harks back to the ongoing mythology of the series (before being largely forgotten about), we see a family settling into their new house. The man of the house Ryan (Chris J. Murray) and his brother (Dan Gill) find a box of video tapes and a weird old video camera that appears to have had some unusual upgrades. When trying it out, it appears to pick up more than the eye can see, but that just happens to be around the same time that Ryan’s daughter Leila (Ivy George) starts acting rather oddly. In keeping with the rest of the series, at this point they decide to put video cameras up at night to capture the spooky goings on.

I say spooky: it’s absolutely the same premise as the rest of the series rolled out again with so little variation as to verge on insulting. Forgetting what made the original so compelling (the slow burn of mood and the effective offsetting of night and day; in the original, the onscreen captions for each new night meant it was time to pay close attention and served to heighten the mood), this is simply a random collection of moments designed to try to make you jump. For less money, you could sit at home in the dark while a friend occasionally yells at you at random intervals, and I’d be willing to bet it would be scarier too. The film’s also hamstrung by the continued attempts at mythologising, but all of the storytellng is handled so clumsily you’ll be hard pressed to notice that none of it really makes any sense any more, even in the context of the series.

Katie Featherston, the anchor of the series since the first film and ever present up to now, has had the sense to finally jump ship, so while her character is referenced it’s only young Katie you see at the start. The rest of the acting is so wooden you expect to find woodpeckers living in it, the characters variously demonstrate new highs (or lows, depending on your viewpoint) of stupidity for the series and the presence of a young blond girl going through inter-dimensional troubles makes this feel more like a sequel to Poltergeist than the culmination of the Paranormal Activity series. It’s a sign of how little the producers care about whether or not you even like this film is that the director’s chair is occupied by a man whose CV consists mainly of roles as an assistant editor – not even a full editor – and he fumbles badly with a script that seven people couldn’t manage to shape into something with any redeeming features. The time has come to turn the cameras off on this insipid franchise, which struggled to justify more than one sequel and eventually fell victim to the laws of diminishing returns, rather than anything more supernatural.

Why see it at the cinema: If you’re the most absurd kind of completist that needs to see the franchise through to the end. I hope for your sake that when they say this is the last one, they mean it.

Why see it in 3D: Don’t bother. With only the parts on the found video camera in 3D, you’ll either have to watch a poorly lit film mostly in 2D while wearing sunglasses or risk putting them on and off at the right times.

What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong supernatural threat, violence, strong language. Based on the current BBFC guidelines, I think it’s mainly the language that tips this one over to a 15.

My cinema experience: Did I jump at all? Yes, yes I did. Mainly because was falling asleep and the loud noises disturbed my blissful almost-slumber, blessed relief from this nonsense that it was. The biggest horror I faced was finding a car parking space in Bury St Edmunds on a Saturday afternoon for my trip to the Cineworld.

The Score: 2/10

Review: Chronicle

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The Pitch: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Not sure. Don’t worry, I got it on video…

The Review: The Back To The Future series may not have got too much right in its vision of the future, but one thing it did predict was the importance of the video camera in the lives of 21st century people. A good proportion of us now carry one around in our pocket – I’m technically writing this review on one, thanks to Steve Jobs and co – so the concept of someone videoing every minute detail of their daily lives seems less and less incredible with each passing year. That said, the found footage genre, as it’s become known, would seem to suggest that anyone who’s become so obsessed with cataloguing their teeth brushing or bowel movements is likely to meet a sticky end. Consequently, most examples of the genre have stuck to horror up to now, but Chronicle takes the genre in an entirely different direction: science fiction.

Chronicle tells the tale of three teenage boys (Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan) who are brought together thanks to a mysterious event, finding something in a hole in the ground (which of course they just happen to video). Following their collective experience, they seem to have developed the ability of telekinesis. While they initially use their powers for pranks and cheap tricks, as their powers grow, so does their potential. But Andrew, the shyest of the group, has problems other than his unique teenage troubles, and a sick mother and an abusive father might do more than to just keep him grounded.

While the change of genre might initially be the element that would seem to set Chronicle apart from its contemporaries in the field, it’s actually the domestic situation that the boys find themselves in that makes Chronicle a more rounded proposition. Rather than simply a sequence of events captured on camera, there’s a depth of emotion and character development so often missing from the more linear predecessors of home video drama. Believable motivations and unexpected turns in the plotting are also afforded by the number of different perspectives; indeed, Chronicle might be better considered to be a composed footage film rather than a found footage one, with every possible video camera in the vicinity rather than just a single viewpoint used to tell the story. The effect of this is just a tad distracting when the boys keep running into people who also just so happen to be videoing their lives, but by the latter stages there are plenty of other cameras in play, and not only is their inclusion often ingenious but it simultaneously avoids the Shakycam that so often blights found footage but you’ll also forget about the gimmick once you’re immersed in the drama.

The cast might be relative unknowns, a couple having had moderate profile TV roles, but they all perform admirably and deal with the shifts in mood. The real success of Chronicle is that it feels like a fully developed drama that just happens to have been recorded on video cameras, but the nature of the filming is integral to the success. There are moments when Chronicle soars, both literally and figuratively, and it captures a sense of wonder and fulfillment that’s so often missing from superhero films with bigger budgets. But it’s also not afraid to explore darker places, and the likes of Burton-era Batman and Raimi-era Spider-Man had occasional aspirations to be this dark, but never managed it with anything close to this level of success. Director Josh Trank and writer Max “son of John” Landis have both marked themselves out as talents to watch, although I hope they have slightly more success with endings than they have here, the only false note being a tacked on final scene. Right, I’m off to imagine what Back To The Future would have been like as a found footage film

Why see it at the cinema: This is found footage played out on a vast canvas, so you’d be best to see it on a vast canvas, ideally one with lots of seats in front of it.

The Score: 9/10

Review: Paranormal Activity 3

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The Pitch: The kids, Marty, something’s gotta be done about those kids…

The Review: I grew up in a simpler time, when scary movies were just scary movies. But even when I was a kid, the horror franchise was becoming a well established phenomenon. These days, you can’t call yourself a horror movie if you don’t generate at least half a dozen sequels, and most are flogged well past the point where any non-horror franchise would be put out of its misery. It’s a little ironic that the genre which gets its best moments from surprising you should thrive so much on repetition, but one idea is enough to get you a career spanning several years. For many years, the Saw franchise had the monopoly on the Hallowe’en season, but it was displaced by found footage movie franchise Paranormal Activity and it’s back this year for a third stab, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Many a horror series is blighted by killing off its villain at the end of each movie and then having to find increasingly unlikely ways to bring them back next time. *cough* Freddy Krueger *cough* PA2 got around this by becoming a prequel to PA1, and in the process attempting to set up a mythology, but also expanding from a single camera to, wait for it, FIVE cameras! PA3 goes back even further, a pre-prequel if you will, and uses the conceit of a wedding photographer in the family to permit a two-camera set-up and a flashy (for 1988) editing suite to be able to review the footage. The sisters of the first two films are back, but they’re young girls and it’s their parents who find things going bump in the night.

Oren Peil, creator of the original, still has a had behind the scenes, but it’s the makers of documentary Catfish, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, on directing duties this time. Katie Featherston, star of the series, is back but only for a brief intro thanks to the format. Don’t be fooled into thinking that these changes in personnel will bring anything new to the franchise, though; PA3 is so formulaic that you can almost set your watch by it. The same sequence of increasingly escalating events, alternating between day and night, plays out in much the same manner as the first two films. If anything, there’s slightly less going on here to start with, as the early scares are less supernatural and more a series of “boo” moments as people suddenly appear in frame.

Don’t get me wrong; done well, those moments still have the power to cause an audience to leap out of their seats, and if you’re anything like me you too will enjoy watching a group of people repeatedly having the bejesus scared out of them. But it’s pretty much all there is here, and while the mythologising helped to keep PA2 fresh, it’s more of the same and it’s starting to make less sense, the fact it’s going backwards clearly not helping. The direction and the performances are all serviceable, but it’s difficult to see how the series can continue to regress from here –  if we’re to get to epic franchise levels, then Paranormal Activity may need to move forward literally as well as figuratively.

Why see it at the cinema: If you like people leaping out and going “Boo!” at you. Repeatedly. Or if you like watching fellow humans being freaked out by having that done to them.

The Score: 5/10

Review: Paranormal Activity 2

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The Pitch: [ ∆ PLAY] [ ∆ PLAY] [ ∆ PLAY] [ ∆ PLAY] [ ∆ PLAY]

The Review: I remember a time when Hallowe’en wasn’t just an excuse to churn out another half-baked sequel in a scary movie franchise. Simpler times, but money talks and the only thing that managed to derail the Saw series from picking up massive opening weekends seemingly unrelated to the actual quality of the movie was another crowd pleaser full of seasonal frights, but which this time jumped on the back of the “found footage” craze. Paranormal Activity had such an impressive box office to cost ratio that a sequel was inevitable, but how can you make money a second time round, without just regurgitating the same concept?

To an extent, this does its fair share of regurgitating in that we are still looking at video footage recorded overnight, but the writers (and producer and returning writer / director from the original Oren Peli) have attempted to retain what was so successful about the original while expanding the concept. That expansion actually works backwards in time, as this is a prequel, and it comes as a certain surprise to see the two lead characters from the first movie returning, but the onscreen caption confirming this place in the timeline does lend another slender air of suspense to proceedings.

But what worked so well in Paranormal Activity was the gradual build of tension through the repetitive structure. By edging up the drama each night, the slow burn nature gradually took its grip on, let’s be honest, some rather gullible audiences, but part of the fun was being caught up in the reactions of those around you. The sequel retains this concept, but with a succession of five cameras spread around the house that are cycled through, allowing you not only the same chance to spot what’s going to cause the scare, like a sort of horror “Where’s Wally?”, but also to speculate on which one is actually going to offer up the scares.

It was also that sense of found footage that helped those more susceptible to fully engage with the original experience, and sadly this is where the sequel compromises in two key areas. Rather than characters played by complete unknowns, we have one played by Sprague Grayden, a.k.a. the manipulative daughter of President Taylor from TV’s 24. The original also dispensed with credits in an effort to maintain the façade; sadly this tries to have its cake and eat it, with a long black screen at the end, but only the most sprightly front row patrons will be out the front door by the time that Sprague Grayden’s credit appears on screen. There’s not much more to say – if you enjoyed the first one at the cinema, and can find a big enough crowd willing to open themselves up to this, then the downsides are offset by some slightly more effective scares and a satisfying extension to the mythology. Amazingly, this franchise might not be on its last legs yet – didn’t see that coming.

Why see it at the cinema: This is a 7/10 experience rather than a 7/10 movie, in all honesty; any attempt to watch this when not fully surrounded by the company of like-minded people, with a large enough proportion jumping out of their skin at the appropriate moments, will completely diminish the effect.

The Score: 7/10