Even if I wasn't particularly fond of the Paranormal Activity films, I would still feel eternally in their debt for the fact that they drop kicked the yearly blight known as Saw from its Halloween perch and made the witching season safe for fun scares again. Sorry, but Halloween is for ghosts, goblins and the supernatural, not torture.
When Paranormal Activity became a hit in October 2009, I considered it cause for celebration. Even better was the fact that I actually liked the movie itself - I wasn't just grateful that it cleared the stink of Saw out of the room. Some would argue that the couple at the heart of PA were not the most sympathetic of duos but if I had a beef against every horror movie where the protagonists were not especially likable, I wouldn't like many horror movies. Personally, I thought Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat were fine (if a little too rich, but whatever) and I was in their corner enough to care what happened to them. But what I really liked about PA is how director Oren Peli had just one imperative in mind - to scare the shit out of the audience. So many horror films seem made by people oblivious to the mechanics of generating fear but Peli showed an innate understanding of how to build unease and deliver big payoffs.
Like The Blair Witch Project in 1999, Paranormal Activity proved that you don't need big special effects to deliver big scares. And unlike BWP (which I still consider to be brilliant), PA had more showmanship to offer, injecting more audience-pleasing jump scares into the mix. I love the rinky-dink, handmade quality to PA's brand of funhouse tricks (like the Ouija board that bursts into flames) and I love that they've carried that quality onto the rest of the series. It would've been so easy for this series to get off track and become too slick for its own good but PA 2 smartly stuck to what worked in the first film, embodied the same low budget aesthetic, and it did what I would've thought was impossible - allowed lightening to strike twice.
The quality control on that sequel was air tight and it proved that Peli didn't just fall ass backwards into Paranormal Activity's success. This was someone who really knew what they were doing and in his producer capacity, he's continued to guide his series well. Other filmmakers who claim to be such hardcore horror buffs could stand to learn something from him as Peli clearly knows more about what makes a horror film work than many fan-favorite directors who are superstars on the convention circuit and the blogosphere. But that's the subject of another blog post, perhaps.
Now the third PA is arriving in time for another Halloween and the first full trailer indicates that, once again, all involved have kept their eyes on the prize. Early reviews (like this), from a surprise showing at Fantastic Fest, confirm as much. I'll still be keeping my expectations in check, because that's only sensible, but based on the trailer I'm very game for whatever PA 3 has to offer.
Some like to bitch that the PA films don't show anything and that, you know, it's dumb for people to find them scary. Personally, it restores my faith in not just the horror genre but in audiences as well that these films do work. You'd think that modern viewers would be way too jaded for these simple spook house style films but I love the fact that there's enough people out there who appreciate this type of horror to make these movies huge hits. I love hearing an audience scream at a well-timed jump scare and to see rows of people fly back in their seats all at once. That's a part of the horror movie experience that's so essential to the genre's appeal. There's an often unappreciated art to making those moments happen and not every filmmaker can successfully pull them off. In the three decades or so that I've been watching horror films in the theater, I've seldom heard an audience reaction as loud as the shrieks that I heard accompany a key, kitchen-set moment in PA 2.
Movies that revel in atrocities, like the Human Centipede films or A Serbian Film, are not the future of horror. They're curiosities, at best. And I say that as someone who spent their adolescent years combing video stores for films like Cannibal Holocaust and Make Them Die Slowly. Maybe I'm just getting old and I don't need to fly in the face of society's norms as much anymore with my entertainment choices but when I hear that a movie features someone jerking off with sandpaper, it sounds like a waste of time to me. Things that go bump in the night, though?
When done right, that stuff never gets old.