[31 Days of Horror Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan] Day 14 – [Happy 10th Birthday!] Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

Director: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Cast: Lauren Bittner, Chris Smith, Chloe Csengery, Jessica Tyler Brown
Screenplay: Christopher Landon
83 mins. Rated R for some violence, language, brief sexuality and drug use.

I’ve spoken before about my initial reluctance to watch the Paranormal Activity franchise, and how I was won over by the incredible concept and storytelling put together for the second film in the franchise, with its clever use of flashback and still finding a way to move the plot forward. So I went into Paranormal Activity 3 with high hopes for when the story was going. The third film ending up being the best-reviewed of the entire series, with many critics seeing the film in a favorable light. Was I one of them?

Paranormal Activity 3 begins by showing us that Katie and Kristi have amassed a large quantity of home videos from their childhood, and then flashing back to the contents of those tapes, in 1988. We are presented with the earliest footage of this paranormal activity, showing exactly how the sisters first became involved with the entities that have followed them for decades.

There’s a lot of love for Paranormal Activity 3, but as a critique purely of the story, I was ultimately let down. The issues of the Paranormal Activity franchise have something in common with the Resident Evil films in that they sometimes seem like a setup for the next film instead of driving forward the narrative. Paranormal Activity 3 is the franchise at its most wheel-spinning. There is a lot of entertainment value and visually impressive technical display in the movie, but whereas the second film was mostly prequel, it still drove the story forward. PA3 seems like the movie that, were it removed from the narrative, would ultimately change nothing. As a complete franchise, it works better, but looking at it on its own, it struggles to find purpose.

I mentioned the films technical display, and I like how we get an explanation for why everyone keeps going to filming the unusual happenings by introducing Dennis (Chris Smith, Enough Said, Little Children). With that, we get some ingenuity in camera placement and technique, specifically when Dennis attaches a camera to a spinning fan in order to provide some really exciting moments. This franchise has always been a feature-length horror version of I Spy, with viewers scouring frames of the static camera, looking for ghosts and creeps and crawlies, subconsciously working themselves up for the scare in advance.

I also really like what we’re given in the 1980s, as a mythology builder. This is the first time in the series that I feel an overarching narrative is being built (yes, even though I’m criticizing the lack of forward momentum, I like the info we’re being delivered). I was also intrigued with the kind of narrative back-stepping being done. I had not guessed the directions this film would take us as viewers, and again, had the film moved the narrative forward while simultaneously stepping backward, I think it would have worked better, especially given where the previous film had ended. Give us something to go with.

Paranormal Activity 3 is a fine enough sequel to the franchise, and it introduces a lot of elements that the franchise would continue to use going forward. I just wish the film actually worked the narrative because it feels meaningless, like a side quest film, and that shouldn’t be the case in building a world and franchise, especially following the excellent second installment. This one is a well-made film that sputters for too much of its run time, but it should offer sufficient scares for fans of the series.

3/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity, click here.
  • For my review of Tod Williams’s Paranormal Activity 2, click here.
  • For my review of Christopher Landon’s Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, click here.

[31 Days of Horror Part VII: The New Blood] Day 22 – [Happy 10th Birthday!] Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

Director: Tod Williams

Cast: Sprague Grayden, Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat

Screenplay: Michael R. Perry, Christopher Landon, Tom Pabst

91 mins. Rated R for some language and brief violent material.

 

The gimmick of found footage horror films discovered quite a resurgence in the late 2000s with the original Paranormal Activity, a film made on a shoestring budget sold as real footage, using unknown actors and a simple shooting style that gave the film an interesting visual aesthetic. That film was so incredibly successful (and how could it not, with a miniscule budget; almost any win is a huge win) that of course Paramount would push forward on a sequel. The studio, which hated its association with the Friday the 13th films back in the 80s, found a new franchise to add to its struggling catalogue, and a small time later, Paranormal Activity 2 was released. I liked Paranormal Activity, but I had no interest in a repeat of the events of the original with a new group of unsuspecting characters facing a new haunting. I was finally pushed into it by a friend and colleague who, while not a huge fan of horror, was blown away by it. It’s been ten years since I first saw Paranormal Activity 2, and its about time I shared my thoughts on it.

Paranormal Activity 2 is the story of the Rey family. The mother, Kristi (Sprague Grayden, Samir, TV’s Jericho) is actually the sister of Katie (Katie Featherston, Psychic Experiment, TV’s Solace for the Undead) from the first film, and we also learn that a bulk of the events from this sequel are actually set before the events of Paranormal Activity. After a suspected burglary at the home of Kristi and husband Daniel (Brian Boland, The Unborn, Surprise Me!), security cameras are set up to protect from future issues. What is captured on those cameras over a series of nights showcase a far different problem: strange and unexplained events are occurring at the Rey home. As the family struggles to understand what is happening to them, a localized presence within the home has set its sights on infant Hunter, and it is determined to have him.

Prequels are a tough nut to crack in storytelling. You have to find a way to make events interesting even when the audience knows all or part of what is going to happen. Paranormal Activity 2, being a prequel/sequel hybrid that focused more on the events before the original film, succeeds quite well at expanding the mythology, focusing on areas that we don’t have a lot of understanding, and driving the narrative ever-so-slightly forward (my biggest criticism of the story is that we don’t really learn much more about what happened after the original film ended). In bulking up the original film’s somewhat weak mythology with a lot of detail and interesting revelations, PA2 becomes a much better story in the process.

The acting of the main cast is neither memorable nor is it poor enough to drag one out of the film. The strongest performance comes from Molly Ephraim (The Front Runner, TV’s Last Man Standing) as Daniel’s daughter Ali, a character who I found to be quite annoying at the film’s beginning until she becomes a more accessible conduit for the emotional core of the audience. As the evil presence makes itself more known in the film, we begin to see her putting the pieces together and search for answers and try to save her family. Even the work of Featherston and Micah Sloat are a little less wooden this time around.

There’s also the effects work to consider. While the first film was done on a shoestring budget, this sequel gets a bit of a bump that goes to making the haunting a little bigger without forcing it. The idea that bigger is better in sequels or follow-ups is foolish and leads to a place where spectacle trumps story and character, but in this film I found that it was not overly bigger. There’s some great scares in the film that ride that line of jump scare aided by mood and tone, and it mostly works. I found myself jumping far more often this time around.

Paranormal Activity 2 does not reinvent the found footage wheel in the way that the first film did. It’s a similar film, but its also a better film, with a stronger story, more interesting characters, higher stakes, and a more captivating mythology. If you didn’t at least like the original film, I can’t see this pre-sequel doing much to sway you, but this one is a follow-up that makes the original better, improving on it in every possible way. It certainly won me over.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity, click here.

For my review of Christopher Landon’s Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, click here.

Zac Efron Joins Blumhouse’s Firestarter

Zac Efron has reboot fever. In addition to joining Disney’s new take on Three Men and a Baby, Efron has also just joined Blumhouse’s new take on Firestarter, based on the novel by Stephen King.

Deadline is reporting that the new film, written by Scott Teems (Halloween Kills, TV’s Rectify) and directed by Keith Thomas, will be produced by Akiva Goldsman and Jason Blum, who teamed up previously for the Paranormal Activity franchise. There’s no notice in the report about the role that Efron would play, but it seems likely that the role will be that of Andrew McGee.

King’s novel features a pyrokinetic little girl and her father on the run from a secret government agency who wish to use her abilities for military and other bizarre purposes. It was previously adapted in 1984 starring Drew Barrymore as Charlie McGee and David Keith as her father, Andrew McGee. That film received a sequel miniseries, Firestarter: Rekindled, in 2002.

It’s been some years since I last read King’s novel, and as I’ve said before, no studios care if you’ve read the book, but I have, so I’ll try to give it the thought. When I think back on Firestarter, I know that Andrew McGee was always cast on the younger side in the book as well, and I could conceivably see Efron as a young father protecting his nine-year-old daughter. I think it’s just that Efron has seemingly always played younger than his age that gives the notion that he’s still a High School Musical-type. I could definitely see him adding the warmth of a father who has no idea what to do in the scope of protecting his dangerous daughter from the clutches of an insidious government organization.

It all comes down to the casting of Charlie, and the chemistry between the two. There’s also a number of meaty roles from the antagonist side of things, but knowing only the initial casting of Efron (and the presumed role of Andrew), things are looking very good so far.

Now, what do you think? Do you like Zac Efron for Firestarter? Are you a fan of his previous work? Let me know/Drop a comment down below.

Firestarter does not currently have a release date.

 

-Kyle A. Goethe

[31 Days of Horror: The Final Chapter] Day 23 – The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Director: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez

Cast: Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard

Screenplay: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez

81 mins. Rated R for language.

 

The Blair Witch Project cast quite the shadow upon release. I remember being much younger and everyone asking me, “Have you seen it yet?” Of course I hadn’t, but everyone else had. Even my brother, who never went to movies, saw The Blair Witch Project. The guy in front of him got sick, then asked a theater attendant for a mop to clean it up. It was pandemonium. I saw it after the hype and hated it. This wasn’t the greatest piece of horror cinema of all time like I’d heard. Naturally, I avoided the film for the next 17 years until the sequel Blair Witch arrived. This year, I thought I’d revisit The Blair Witch Project to see if my reaction has changed.

The Blair Witch Project projects itself as found-footage (one of the first films ever to fully sell itself as such) of three people: Heather (Heather Donahue, Boys and Girls, The Morgue), Mike (Michael C. Williams, Altered, Four Corners of Fear), and Josh (Joshua Leonard, If I Stay, Teenage Cocktail). Heather is a filmmaker chronicling the legend of the Blair Witch, a legend that exists in parts of Maryland. They vanished, leaving only this footage behind.

So, I didn’t hate The Blair Witch Project on this second go-around, but I still don’t think it’s a good movie. The film has a very interesting flavor and story, but it drags far too much for such a short feature. The three characters are neither likeable nor interesting, and I didn’t find myself all that worried about their survival. Modern found-footage has learned a lot from The Blair Witch Project, but as this was a relatively new subgenre, mistakes are made that hamper the whole experience.

I can’t deny the film’s impact, though. It held a Guinness World Record for Box Office Ratio by making back almost 11,000 times its budget. The cultural impact of the film was massive and actually convinced many viewers that the film was real (strange because the credits are quite apparent whereas other films like Paranormal Activity tried to hide it better). Fans flocked to Maryland to learn that they were indeed wrong. All three actors stayed in character for the entirety of the eight-day shoot unless one had to utter the safety word, taco. Altogether, this must have been a grueling eight days.

The Blair Witch Project deserves more recognition that I’ve given it, but it still isn’t a good movie. An amazing idea doesn’t automatically ensure a great film, and poor character development is the cardinal sin of this horror classic. Worth watching if you’ve never seen it, but I think I’m good for the next 17 years.

 

2.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch, click here.

 

For more Almighty Goatman,

[31 Days of Horror: The Final Chapter] Day 14 – [Happy 10th Birthday!] Paranormal Activity (2007)

Director: Oren Peli

Cast: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Friedrichs

Screenplay: Oren Peli

86 mins. Rated R for language.

 

Ah, Paranormal Activity, the franchise that killed Saw. I’m over it. I’m so over it.

The original Paranormal Activity has a fairly straightforward plot: A couple, Katie (Katie Featherston, Psychic Experiment, TV’s Solace for the Unloved) and Micah (Micah Sloat, The Death and Return of Superman) get a video camera to document the eerie happenings at their home. The strange activity seems to be centered around Katie, and Micah, having only just hearing about it, decides to attempt to capture it on film. What follows is a found-footage collection of the three weeks the camera is on.

The frights in Paranormal Activity are interesting, unusual, and a little intense at times. Director Oren Peli (Area 51) shot the film in 10 days using a script that was essentially a guided outline and created the characters alongside Featherston and Sloat to create as much realism as possible. Katie is depressed and sad as the movie shows the horrors she has experienced most of her life while Micah is kind of an asshole as he fails to see the toll inflicted on someone he supposedly loves. Neither performance is particularly exemplary but they are serviceable enough.

Credit should be given to Paramount Pictures and director Steven Spielberg for shepherding the film to release, as well as the horror fans who requested it in their homes. Paramount went all in on the finished product, opting to show the finished film without title cards or any credits in fact, playing up to the gimmick, and Steven Spielberg suggested a more marketable ending that this writer actually prefers to the original, if only slightly.

Overall, Paranormal Activity would be a good starting off point for horror fans. It is creepy but not altogether scary, and its thrills do not rely heavily on gore or dread but more a fun atmospheric ambiance. In fact, this is a film that is better outside of the theater, so gather some friends, turn the lights off, and enjoy!

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Christopher Landon’s Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, click here.

 

 

For more Almighty Goatman,

31 Days of Horror: Day 15 – The Sacrament (2013)

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Director: Ti West

Cast: Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil

Screenplay: Ti West

95 mins. Rated R for disturbing violent content including bloody images, language and brief drug use.

 

Ti West’s The Sacrament is a cult movie. By that I mean it is a movie about a cult. Presented in found footage, it tells the story of a news crew who follow a young man searching for his sister (Amy Seimetz, TV’s The Killing, You’re Next) who has gone to live in a community called Eden Parish run by a mysterious leader known only as Father. As the mystery surrounding this supposed Paradise begins to unravel, it is clear to the crew that they may not make it out of Eden Parish alive.

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I have not always been the biggest Ti West fan. I happened to believe that his only quality work came from his section of the phenomenal found footage film V/H/S, and I can now add The Sacrament to the list of good works by West. Honestly, this movie has the potential to piss people off, and it should. This is one of those horror films where the horror is right there, real, powerful. It isn’t some demon or ghost, but is a man, and that has the potential to make it even scarier. Man is real, and man is dangerous.

The performances in the film are good enough for believability, with special honors to Gene Jones, who portrays Father. His is a chilling performance. I remember asking if he was some sort of monster as the movie moved on, and I was right, kind of.

I didn’t find the found footage all that hampering to the film here as well. So many recent movies have taken the Paranormal Activity route and have come up with nothing good (we all know I’m talking about Devil’s Due), but here, it makes sense and is fluid to the story. Not perfect mind you, but serviceable.

One of the best parts of this movie is the ending. I won’t say much except that it surprised me for a found footage film. I was shocked by the ending. That’s all I will say.

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The Sacrament is not a perfect film. It has the luxury of producer Eli Roth, who has the potential to create something truly terrifying. Hopefully Ti West will realize what worked in this movie and what didn’t. Hopefully he will learn, because this was some pretty scary shit.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

For more 31 Days of Horror, click here.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

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Director: Christopher Landon

Cast: Andrew Jacobs, Jorge Diaz, Richard Cabral, Carlos Pratts, Gabrielle Walsh.

Screenplay: Christopher Landon

84 mins. Rated R for pervasive language, some violence, graphic nudity and some drug use.

Who would have guessed we would be here right now, seven years after the original Paranormal Activity film was released, reviewing the fifth (fourth-and-a-halfth? There will be a PA5 this Halloween) film in the brooding series which brought found-footage into popular usage? Certainly not this critic. I was not on the Paranormal Activity bandwagon until the first sequel showed up. I appreciated the original film for what it was: a note to independent filmmakers with no budget, saying “its okay. You can still become a success.” And boy, have the knock-offs come flying by.

The one crutch of the series that I can truly have trouble with is that it has its gimmick. It has inexpense (we are currently feeding rumors of a new Friday the 13th film in Found-Footage, I suspect, for the same reason; see https://almightygoatman.wordpress.com/2014/01/12/new-friday-the-13th-to-be-a-reboot-again-and-a-found-footage-film/). It has only one major camera angle that is used in likely 80% of the film. This isn’t the series for marathoning, I tried once but got tired of staring into bedrooms like a creeper. That’s where the new film, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, is different (but only slightly).

For measure, so that I don’t get bogged down with the intricacies on the plot (and I have some), I will give a rough breakdown of the Paranormal Activity films. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.

The canonical films in the series are as follows:

  1. Paranormal Activity
  2. Paranormal Activity 2
  3. Paranormal Activity 3
  4. Paranormal Activity 4
  5. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones
  6. Paranormal Activity 5 (I have very few details on this film as of now. I just want you to know it will be here in 9 months…)

We won’t include the non-canonical film Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night.

The first part of the story is featured in Paranormal Activity 3, we see the sisters Katie and Kristi in 1988 being haunted and tormented by a coven of witches and a demon named Toby. The 3rd film is on a VHS tape that is stolen in the prologue of the film. Jump forward to 2006 for the events of Paranormal Activity 2 and the 1 and then back to 2. These films deal with adult Kristi being haunted before having her sister receive the curse through some crazy ritual. Katie becomes possessed, kills her boyfriend Micah, and then goes to her sister’s house and kills Kristi and her husband before stealing their baby Hunter and disappearing for 5 years. The fourth film introdueces us to Alex and her family, who come across Katie and a young child who have moved inacross the street. Lots a scary stuff takes place and the film ends very confusingly with Alex being attacked by the witch’s coven.

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Now, at this point, I was pretty turned off by the series. Paranormal Activity 4 hit a series low for me. I wasn’t sure I would be so turned back.

SPOILERS END.

The Marked Ones is a sequel, more so than most horror franchises and no matter how many call it a spin-off. This film does more to connect the franchise and take a step forward than any other installment. The story follows a young man, Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) who discovers that he is a part of a dangerous ritual that will conclude with his eventual possession. We can already see the fabric stitching his story and Katie’s together. The tale revolves heavily around Jesse and his friend Hector (Jorge Diaz) trying to understand what is possessing him. Sounds very simplistic, but Writer/Director Christopher Landon (writer of Paranormal Activity 2, 3, & 4) has some more invention up his sleeve that creates a more unique entry to the series. There is just something fresh about this film and the way it deals with the world created in Oren Peli’s original film. There are moments in this film that pay homage to each of the films before it and also connects them all to eleviate confusion. I feel like Landon listened to all of us and knew exactly what this franchise needs: answers. We have have four films of mostly questions, and now we have some answers. The ending is both shockingly out of left field and angering as well. I hope to see more info on how the ending will serve the series in the next film, but for now, we have watercooler talk to serve us.

Andrew Jacobs does well as Jesse, he has the capability to carry the film nicely enough. Nothing special yet, but capable. The same can be said of the other performances in the film, all good enough to sustain realism in this unrealistic tale, but certainly no Best Actor noms to worry about for next year’s Oscars.

The big change in this film is the definite break in structure that Landon chose to make. He eliminates the still in preference of the static. No more stationary camera work. Oscar carries this camera through the film. Now I know this isn’t all that magical. We have films like Quarantine and Blair Witch that have done this before, but all the same, it adds flavor to Landon’s stylistic shots. There are interesting suprising visual shots made without this feeling like a purposefully shot film.

The editing choices in this film were made correctly as well, especially around some of the more “out there” elements, a choice was made to heighten the editing and not play up the visual effects, not to play up the fantastical too much to avoid campiness, which I can appreciate. I too appreciate that the film’s costumes and sets are culturally significant without feeling way overdone or stereotyping.

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If this new entry is any indication, we haven’t seen the last of the Paranormal Activity franchise after 5 is released this October. The series feels renewed, so I can only hope they keep it up.

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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