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The Paranormal Activity Series

Paranormal Activity (November 2/09)

A found-footage thriller in the vein of The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity follows engaged couple Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) as they become convinced that their home has been infested by a malicious presence - with the film subsequently detailing the pair's ongoing efforts at documenting said presence by filming every aspect of their day-to-day lives. Though writer/director Oren Peli does a nice job of sustaining the authenticity of the characters and their situation through the movie's progressively outlandish plot developments, the filmmaker's inability to draw the viewer into the unabashedly spare storyline is exacerbated by an almost egregiously uneventful opening half hour - which consequently ensures that it becomes more and more difficult to work up any enthusiasm for the protagonists' admittedly dire plight. It certainly doesn't help that Katie and Micah are almost entirely lacking in attributes designed to earn the viewer's sympathy (ie they're both just bland), with the pervasive emphasis on the couple's banal conversations effectively establishing a monotonous atmosphere that's periodically (and thankfully) interrupted by the spirit's spooky shenanigans. And while some of this stuff is undeniably quite creepy - ie Katie, seemingly possessed by the apparition, stands prone over Micah's sleeping figure for several hours - there reaches a point at which the film's relentlessly repetitive nature slowly-but-surely begins to dull the impact of its overtly scary moments. As a result, the impressively brutal (yet disappointingly conventional) climax isn't nearly as stirring as one imagines it's meant to be - which only cements Paranormal Activity's place as a sporadically intriguing horror effort that ultimately can't quite live up to the promise of its setup.

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Paranormal Activity 2 (October 21/10)

As blatant a rehash of its predecessor as one could have possibly envisioned, Paranormal Activity 2 follows a family of four (mom, dad, a teenage daughter, and an infant son) as they're terrorized by an increasingly malevolent force. The film, directed by Tod Williams, boasts an opening half hour that's generally akin to watching someone else's home videos, with the periodic appearances by the first film's protagonist (Katie Featherston's Katie) injecting the proceedings with much needed bursts of dread (ie is she actually Katie or is she a demon disguised as Katie?) And though the movie boasts a decidedly repetitive structure - much like the original, the film alternates between its sinister nighttime segments and its comparatively lighthearted daytime counterparts - there's little doubt that Paranormal Activity 2 ultimately fares slightly better than its pervasively lackluster forebear. It's clear that the expanded cast plays a big role in the movie's mild success, with the decision to throw a dog and a toddler into the mix upping the creepiness factor by a rather substantial margin. (And it's also worth noting that the characters do become somewhat more sympathetic and compelling than the comparatively bland and one-dimensional protagonists of Oren Peli's 2009 sleeper.) Of course, Paranormal Activity 2 is at its best during its overtly sinister sequences - with the highlight undoubtedly a brilliantly conceived and executed scene in which the mother (Sprague Grayden) is violently dragged through the house. (By that same token, however, it's a little disappointing to note that the movie doesn't boast much in the way of innovation; virtually everything that occurs here echoes that which occurred in the first film.) The end result is a sequel that should please both fans and detractors of the original, yet one can't help but wish the movie hadn't concluded quite so abruptly (ie just as things start to get really interesting and even exciting, the movie essentially just finishes - while, of course, leaving the door wide open for another sequel).

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Paranormal Activity 3 (October 25/11)

The Paranormal Activity saga continues in a prequel that covers much of the same ground as its predecessors, with the filmmakers' stubborn refusal to deviate from the series' well-worn structure ensuring that the movie, for the most part, unfolds exactly as one might've anticipated. It is, as such, not surprisingly to note that Paranormal Activity 3 boasts an atmosphere of almost excessive deliberateness, as directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman offer up an opening hour that's defined by its laid-back pace and sporadic emphasis on suspense-oriented set pieces - with the film revolving primarily around Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi's (Jessica Tyler Brown) childhood encounter with the franchise's malevolent demon. And although the novelty of the premise has long-since worn off, Paranormal Activity 3 nevertheless manages to sustain the viewer's interest even through its more blatantly uneventful stretches - as the movie admittedly does feature several better-than-average performances and a handful of genuinely stirring interludes (eg the fate of the family's babysitter). There's little doubt, however, that Joost and Schulman's refusal to shake up the series' seemingly set-in-stone template grows increasingly problematic as time progresses, with the impact of the shock ending diminished significantly by the utterly predictable build-up - which, as expected, confirms Paranormal Activity 3's place as nothing more than a passable yet far-from-engrossing entry in what is a disappointingly middling series.

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Paranormal Activity 4 (October 18/12)

The Paranormal Activity series hits the wall hard with this ineffectual and frequently interminable entry, as filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman follow the franchise's established formula to an almost unconscionable degree - with the familiarity of the narrative exacerbated by an excessively deliberate pace and a complete lack of tension. The storyline, which predictably details the exploits of a random (and hopelessly bland) family that begins experiencing spooky happenings, doesn't progress the overall mythology of the series one iota, and it's clear that the entire movie, scripted by Christopher Landon, could've been condensed into a five minute prologue in front of an actual sequel. (It's rather telling that the only wholeheartedly entertaining portion of Paranormal Activity 4 is its action-packed and refreshingly over-the-top final stretch.) And because the novelty of the franchise's modus operandi has long since worn off, the film's creepier moments, for the most part, are unable to pack the visceral punch that one might've anticipated (ie people levitating, swinging chandeliers, random jump scares, etc; it's all stuff we've seen countless times in the first three installments). Joost and Schulman's dogged insistence on maintaining the status quo ultimately confirms Paranormal Activity 4's place as a seriously superfluous piece of work, and one can only hope that the series finally moves in a new direction - perhaps the direction promised by the climax of both Paranormal Activity 3 and 4 - that jolts this franchise out of its palpable doldrums.

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Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (January 12/14)

A noble (yet failed) attempt to shake up the Paranormal Activity series, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones follows recent high-school graduate Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) as he discovers a mysterious bite on his arm and subsequently begins to experience odd changes to his personality. It's inevitably clear that Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones bears few similarities to its four predecessors in terms of structure, as filmmaker Christopher Landon eschews the format ("Night 1," Night 2," etc) of those movies in favor of a far more generic found-footage sort of feel. The less-than-engrossing atmosphere is, at the outset, compounded by an emphasis on the uninvolving exploits of the central character, with the first third of the movie devoted to Jesse's fun-loving antics in and around his low-rent apartment building alongside friends Hector (Jorge Diaz) and Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh). Landon's excessively deliberate sensibilities result in a first half that's almost entirely devoid of compelling interludes, and it's not until the film trudges into its comparatively engrossing midsection that one's interest is finally piqued to a slight degree. (It doesn't hurt that Landon has peppered this section of the proceedings with a handful of admittedly engaging sequences, including an ominous game of Simon and Jesse's encounter with several creepy figures.) The palpable lack of momentum, coupled with an incongruously unpleasant bit of business involving Jesse's dog, ensures that Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones fizzles out considerably in the buildup to its familiar climax (ie it's awfully similar to its immediate predecessor's final stretch), with the intriguing yet baffling coda confirming the movie's place as a demonstrably needless entry within a progressively irrelevant series.

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Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (November 2/15)

Though billed as the final installment in the Paranormal Activity franchise, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension ultimately adds very little to the series as a whole and provides few of the answers viewers have been clamoring for - with the most obvious example of this the film's total lack of closure for Katie Featherston's recurring character. (The actress doesn't even appear in the movie, despite popping up in each of the preceding installments.) The narrative, perhaps predictably, follows a bland and one-dimensional family as they move into a new house and are almost immediately bombarded by supernatural happenings, with the characters eventually able to see their doom approaching after the discovery of a special camera that allows them to watch the spirits at work. There's little doubt that Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension fares best in its first half, as director Gregory Plotkin has infused certain sequences with a tension that proves effective at cultivating an atmosphere of palpable suspense. It's a shame, then, that the movie begins to fizzle out demonstrably as it passes the midway point, with the expectedly deliberate pace growing more and more difficult to overlook as time progresses - especially given that this installment is meant to conclude the entire series (ie just when things should be ramping up, Plotkin begins taking a more measured approach). The anti-climactic finale, coupled with a thoroughly disappointing non-ending, confirms Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension's place as a serious disappointment, and if this indeed the end of the line for the Paranormal Activity saga, it's ultimately difficult to recall a franchise that so completely failed to stick the landing.

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© David Nusair