Each year at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, the packed house is reminded of the scientific and intellectual contributions Israel has made to the world. I’d suggest adding Oren Peli to the list for creating a horror franchise that has actually remained satisfying and reasonably fresh (and oh-so-profitable) through three sequels.
The Paranomal Activity series has remained a guaranteed box-office success without recessing into the torture-porn subgenre — exactly where the Saw franchise went after the first film had a suspenseful twisting storyline. Nor does the PA family rely on pricey special effects to deliver the spooks: The first film — directed, written, and edited by Peli — cost a whopping $15,000 to make and raked in nearly $200 million worldwide. Peli returned to produce the next three while handing the directing reins to others.
Many have tried the found-footage genre with widely varying degrees of success. The original Paranormal Activity was released a decade after the wildly successful Blair Witch Project, which made nearly $250 million worldwide as one of the most successful independent films ever. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 didn’t fare so well, and plans for another sequel fizzled. Cloverfield used the found-footage framework for a monster attack; Quarantine for a runaway apocalyptic virus. Most attempts at the style have found cult followings at best, like the gem Grave Encounters that riffs on the explosion of ghost-hunting shows on TV today, most notably Ghost Adventures on the Travel Channel.
In the PA series, the ghosts have often been effects that you could pull off with fishing line, and they’re still scary. They don’t exactly reach the dramatic sweep of The Shining, or the apocalyptic terror of 28 Days Later, but they do the job for which they were created — being a creepy popcorn movie sans a comical Jason or Freddie running around.
In Paranormal Activity 4, which opened at late screenings last night to the tune of $4.5 million (and it cost $5 million to make), a new subgenre is introduced to put a twist on the classic PA formula: the creepy child.
The creepy kid has a hallowed tradition in horror films, from Damien in The Omen to Toshio in The Grudge and the Children of the Corn. Paranormal Activity 4 serves up another creepy little devil in the form of Robbie, the kid from across the street who wanders into the neighbors’ treehouse, and meanders robotically with a blank face.
There’s little mystery as to who Robbie’s “mom” is, as we’re reminded at the beginning of the film that Katie split with her nephew Hunter at the end of Paranoramal Activity 2. But there are even twists from this assumption.
Paranormal Activity 2 was a parallel prequel to the original film, where we learned of the attachment of the male son to the demonic activity, and Paranormal Activity 3 was a prequel to both, where we saw why Katie was possessed and the activity’s tie to a coven.
The first and the third movies have the best overall ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, with the latest release opening much lower than its predecessors.
But for fans of the series, it’s not a complete dud.
The fourth installment begins in a nice big suburban house in Henderson, Nev., which adds some extra fun to the possession angle as this is the city where President Obama prepped for that debate. Creepy kid Robbie, in a ranch house across the street hidden behind an iron gate, keeps wandering over to the nice suburban house and its backyard treehouse.
After pulling a few crisis strings, Robbie manages to get a bed at the nice big suburban house, which is occupied by one of those couples who sit across from each other at Denny’s and don’t speak (to lift the immortal line from Singles), their teenage daughter Alex, and 6-year-old son Wyatt.
Creepy little Robbie, complete with socks-and-Birkenstocks, unpacks his 100-year-old toys and a “special fork” — which should’ve been the first clue for the family to get the newcomer a babysitter and a hotel room. Enter the same invisible friend from the third installment, and weird things start happening in the house.
It’s not so much handycam this time around but more webcam. And the setting up of the cams, including tinkering with an infrared device, is a plausible scenario for teen Alex and her boyfriend Ben considering all of the ghost-hunting cable shows in the present day, when the movie is set.
The good news for filmgoers is that all of the spooky moments aren’t blown by the previews or trailer. And pieces fit together a little bit more, just as in the other sequels. I enjoyed it, and not just because I was the only person in the theater at a 9:45 a.m. showing. It’s not especially original and won’t pack the initial Peli punch, but the series still manages to be entertaining without the frills employed in many modern horror flicks.
The bad news for Paramount, which has learned new things about profit margins from this series, is that a fifth installment may be a bridge too far. But if you sat through and enjoyed the first four, you’d probably go see a fifth one, too. And Peli will be banking on that next Halloween as well.
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