Stepping beyond the trilogy tradition is fashionable for horror and action franchises nowadays. Five seems to be a magic sequel number, as series like Final Destination and Fast And Furious found renewed vigor (though nothing terribly original) the fifth time around. On the other hand, a fourth film can be a hard and slippery climb, perhaps enough to scuttle all hopes for the future. The last Indiana Jones film left most of us firmly against the idea of another. Scream 4 fared better, but legions of fans are hardly knocking the doors down for more. Ridley Scott sidestepped the ugly prospect of cleaning up after Alien Resurrection by fashioning Prometheus to fit at the other end of the saga.
Paranormal Activity, now the reigning monarch of name-brand Halloween flicks (after the merciful retirement of Saw and in Rob Zombie’s ominous absence) is gearing us up for more. At the end of July, series creator, writer, and producer Oren Peli tossed off an airy, bewildering pre-teaser, simply to say “stay tuned for a couple of days, and we’ll give you something to prick up your ears properly.”
At this point, no concrete hints were forthcoming. This thinly stretched chronicle of a deceptively screwed-up family and their spooky encounters with invisible evil could either go sequel, sequel to the prequel, prequel to the prequel, or parallel universe this time. The first two films took place as an interlocking narrative and the third – arguably the best so far – provided an ambiguous prologue. There are still plenty of answers missing, though how many more objects can be effectively hurled from shelves remains to be seen.
The next day, they did it again. Apparently the motive was to save every trace of the new film for the full-scale trailer. This approach somewhat missed the point of having “teasers” at all. At this point, fans began to express their irritation online. Merely reminding us that Paranormal Activity is a thing that exists did us no good. What we wanted was a tiny dose of something horrid that would make us curious enough to show up for Part Four.
The third and final mini-teaser was the first to prickle with real foreboding. It was nothing more than a glimpse of the adorable little girls in peril from PA3, followed by a fleeting image of something not quite discernible. Was it there in the film, or is it a little something new? Presumably all three teasers contained mild subliminal twists, but the third version was decidedly the most effective, probably because of its direct connection to the completely insane but genuinely nerve-rattling finale of PA3. That is, after all, where we left off.
The sentiment most commonly expressed about Paranormal Activity is along the lines of “Why do they keep making these?” True, audiences and critics seem to agree that they add nothing of value to our lives, but no matter how often we question the existence of these films, we still flock to theaters to pack the seats with our dread-seeking butts. Despite the same old trailers, which assure us that real audiences observed in real night vision were terribly frightened by yet more cheap camera tricks, most of us cannot outlast our curiosity to see how much deeper and darker the meandering narrative will go. Peli and associates, for their part, are only doing what is practical. Costing as little as they do to produce, these movies are golden goose eggs, even if audiences are buying tickets merely to jeer at them. As much as we gripe about these films, something about their mood and presentation continues to fascinate large crowds of rowdy moviegoers. They are not great, but even at their worst they are fun to watch in crowded theaters.
Now comes the big day, when PA4 gives us a look under the sheets.
Despite an unavoidable “sameness” of style in many respects, history tells us that the broader strokes of Paranormal Activity movies are difficult to predict. Like the angry polter-nasties that haunt them, these films play tricks on us.
Taken at face value for a moment, this is quite the unassuming and straightforward preview. Beginning with a “previously on” montage which recaps the major players and thrilling climaxes we need to have in mind, it proceeds to spin a new yarn about – guess what? – the anxiety of living in a house where weird things happen at night.
It would appear that Paranormal Activity 4 is a sequel or spinoff, taking place after the events of the first three films. Depending on whether the fair-haired victim child in this clip is part of the film’s main plot, mere prologue fodder, or a trailer-only red herring (The infamous PA3 “Blood Mary” promo set a major precedent), this film is either getting back to basics, or playing huge new surprises close to the vest.
One sure bet is that the movie will brainstorm some quirky new ways to capture the eponymous “activity” on video. From the trailer we gather that webcam exchanges will play a significant role. Hopefully this will provide more freedom of movement for the film’s continuously forced perspective, and allow us to watch more than one character at a time do something other than sleep.
Evidently, Katie and her baby nephew, whom she (SPOILER) stole for who knows what cursed purpose at the end of PA2, are prowling the night for more people to terrify. Whatever relation the mysterious “boy next door” has to the them (previous victim? distracting phantasm?), it definitely looks creepy. The flying saucer noises don’t really fit, but we can safely look forward to scenes of ghostly misdirection to put us off our guard before WHAM! the camera discovers a figure lurking in the darkest corner.
Will the directors of this film continue to wallow in enigma, gambling on our continued interest in future sequels (as the previous film did quite deftly), or provide conclusive answers in case four films is all that hell allows? The tagline “All The Activity Has Led To This,” is certainly suggestive of major revelations. Conversely, it may simply be a satisfactory but mildly clunky tagline.
In retrospect, relying on a Paranormal Activity trailer to give itself away was a foolish hope. The power of cheap surprise is the main strength of the franchise. These films are lowbrow, contrived, and riddled with pacing problems, but they exploit (with some skill) the basic appeal of dawdling against all reasonable sense in a haunted house. While they lack the soul-scarring impact of something like Ju-On: The Grudge, the whimsical madness of Hausu, or the aggressive nastiness of The Amityville Horror, it is unfair to deny that they get the odd moment extremely right, and inconsistent payoffs have so far not hindered an impressive box office record. Like others before it, Paranormal Activity has become a short-term Halloween tradition. While clumsy, it is not as base or offensive as a film catering primarily to disgust. Heaven knows we are overstocked with those. This film series arguably has its heart in a more proper place, and that will have to do for now.
Paranormal Activity 4 is scheduled for release on October 19, 2012.