Denouement: How the ‘Paranormal Activity’ Movies Escaped the Found-Footage Ghetto

Tim Grierson
The Projector
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Twelve years ago, the whirlwind success of "The Blair Witch Project" created its own genre: the found-footage film. Using the conceit that the movie wasn't fictional, but actually compiled from real footage that was left behind by the participants (usually under mysterious or tragic circumstances), "Blair Witch" worked over the audience so effectively because the horror didn't seem manufactured in the old don't-open-that-door way. Instead, we were watching real people being scared by something really frightening.

Because of the failure of the "Blair Witch" sequel, which didn't use the found-footage technique, the genre quickly fell out of favor. But in the last few years, it's come back in a big way, most notably with the "Paranormal Activity" movies. But as the latest installment has proved, the found-footage aspect of it isn't really what makes it so special. Maybe it's time to stop lumping them in with "Apollo 18" and "Quarantine."

When the first "Paranormal Activity" hit theaters in 2009, it already had a reputation for being a crafty, scary film that was so terrifying it even spooked Steven Spielberg. First-time writer-director Oren Peli had made it in a week back in 2006 for $15,000, and now it was the sleeper success of the year, mostly because like "Blair Witch" it was packaged as an actual found-footage documentary rather than a traditional horror film. Inevitably, Paramount decided to make a sequel, but the problem was going to be how to get audiences to care about the scenario now that everybody knew what the trick was.

It was right here when the franchise could have jumped the shark, but "Paranormal Activity 2" turned out to be a better movie precisely because it pushed against the found-footage gimmick while still adhering to it. Directed by Tod Williams, who hadn't made a feature since 2004's "The Door in the Floor," "Paranormal Activity 2" boasted a stronger cast and a smarter script. But Williams figured out that it wasn't really the found-footage conceit that made the first movie scary. Nope, it was the static camera that forced the audience to peer into the darkened rooms knowing full well that something somewhere was there in the frame ready to do harm to the characters while they slept. For all the talk about how studio movies are usually quick-cutting, furiously paced, loud affairs, the first two "Paranormal Activity" films were actually relatively calm, quiet, deliberate movies. In the night scenes where the filmmakers build the terror over a series of days, the camera doesn't even move -- practically the Hollywood version of the so-called "slow cinema" movement in arthouse cinema. Of course, that's what made it so frightening: We had come to expect our horror movies to be frenetic, but these just waited and waited until the moment they struck.

Now with "Paranormal Activity 3," they've added another wrinkle that again has nothing to do with found footage. As Leitch mentioned in his review, by this point the found-footage conceit is as unimportant to the franchise as the documentary crew following the characters in "The Office" is: It's just a way to tell the story, not the reason for the story's effectiveness. And once again with "3," there's a new director, "Catfish" documentary filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. (Hiring them was a nice little tweak on the fact that some people thought that "Catfish" was, in fact, an elaborate hoax.) The found-footage premise is set up early on, but Joost and Schulman only seem interested in the gimmick so they can turn the niftiest twist thus far in the franchise: rigging a video camera onto an oscillating base so that the camera moves slowly back and forth in the characters' house, showing the living room ... and then the dining room ... and then the living room. Since the "Paranormal" movies have trained us to expect static nighttime shots, this panning move is incredibly frightening with disturbing images weaving in and out of view. You don't walk out of "Paranormal Activity 3" freaked out because you thought it was a documentary. You're scared silly because of the ways the filmmakers continue to tinker with your expectations about what these films should be.

In the last several years, films like "Cloverfield" and "Apollo 18" have played with the found-footage gimmick to varying degrees of success, but what's limited them all is the fact that they spend so much time establishing the found-footage premise. "Paranormal Activity" is past that now: Instead, the franchise is exploring how it can terrify us as simply as possible. In most regular horror films, the scary thing is usually off in the distance or out of frame, and the characters are trying to run away from it. But with the "Paranormal" movies, it's almost exactly the opposite: The terror is there in the frame, but we can't see it. And the characters (who are either asleep or wandering through the darkness) don't necessarily know what's happening. But we do -- and so we scan that quiet, seemingly empty frame desperately in the hopes that we can spot the horror before it gets us. This is different than "Saw" or "Friday the 13th" or "Nightmare on Elm Street" or "Blair Witch" or any of the recent found-footage movies. And in its own small way, it's pretty remarkable -- maybe even brilliant. When we all went to see "Paranormal Activity" two years ago, could any of us imagined that the franchise would continue to get better and better? I know I didn't. But now, I can hardly wait to see what they try next.