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
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