Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
Review— Paranormal Activity Series
Film successes like Paranormal Activity rarely happen. Especially in this day and age, with the excess of movie-watching options like Netflix, Redbox, and On Demand, there’s seems to be less initiative for some to run to the theater to see anything but the newest blockbuster. It’s so difficult for smaller indie films to find a place in the giant theatrical market, and it’s typically looked at with positive marks with a smaller movie manages to break through the mold with five million or more.
Paranormal Activity’s history is so fascinating that the story behind the film is worthy of a documentary. An Israeli-born director Oren Peli got the idea to make a horror film for dirt cheap by hiring non-union actors and shooting in his very own home in San Diego, California. For fifteen thousand dollars, he shot Paranormal Activity over the course of just six days in September of 2006. He spent a year editing the film, which made its premiere in Fall 2007 at Screamfest Film Festival in Los Angeles.
The movie got some notice there, but it wasn’t until it landed into the hands of Steven Spielberg that the train started pushing forward. The film scared Spielberg so much that he returned it to his offices in a plastic bag. It was assumed Dreamworks would green-light a bigger-budget remake of the haunted house story, but one single screening of the original film convinced executives to just release the movie as is. But what would be the process to get the word out? How would people get interested in seeing such a small no-frills production?
Word started building in 2009 that a new horror film outside of the Saw universe, one that was legitimately terrifying, could be released in October, but the general public had to demand it. The trailer released in September of 2009 was ingenious, showing a large audience of college students screaming and shaking as they watched the movie. Everybody loves to be scared. And everybody wanted an alternative from Saw that Halloween to see something different, and something that would actually frighten them.
The movie opened at the end of September in a few select college towns, playing only at Midnight. When each and every screening in these towns sold out, Paramount started expanding the film across the country. For the October 9 weekend, the movie made eight million dollars, making it the fourth highest grossing movie in the country, but only playing on 160 screens. They claimed if the movie got one million demands on the web site, they would go nationwide. They finally did on October 23, where the movie took first place at the box office and brought in over twenty-one million dollars.
All in all, Paranormal Activity grossed 108 million dollars off of a fifteen thousand dollar budget — how’s that for a return on your investment. The film was the first to officially mark the beginning of the end of the Saw franchise, and no eyebrows were raised when a sequel for 2010 was swiftly announced soon after the film’s gargantuan success.
If there was any sequel that could’ve been a hack rush job with little to no thought behind it, Paranormal Activity was it. Made for 11,000 dollars back in 2006, Paranormal Activity was slowly unraveled onto moviegoers last October who were looking for an alternative to the Saw franchise and wanted something legitimately scary. Paranormal Activity was that perfect second option, a throwback to low-budget scary faux-documentaries like The Blair Witch Project. The concept was ingenious, the acting was above average, and the scares were genuinely effective. The movie grossed over a hundred million dollars and guaranteed an instant sequel.
All Paramount really needed to do was shoot another group of people in a house screaming and running from a scary noise and release it as Paranormal Activity 2. They could’ve spent just another couple hundred thousand, slapped a movie together in a matter of weeks, and unleashed it on the unsuspecting public. People would’ve been pissed, but come October 2011, they would’ve happily taken the trip to see Part 3. Of course that weird Blair Witch 2 came out a year after the original, bombed, and guaranteed no more sequels to that potential franchise. So who knows? Maybe it would be more effective for Paramount to gather a talented new cast and crew and put together a worthwhile sequel to Paranormal Activity.
And they’ve done just that. While it’s a flawed movie for sure, without some of the elements that made the original so successful, it has a handful of huge scares, a genuine sense of dread throughout the second half, and a great ending that leaves room for another sequel.
The smartest choice here was to present most of the events in this film as a prequel to the events of the original. Katie Featherston might’ve said so in the original, but she has a sister, and the two of them have been fighting off bad dreams and premonitions about a demon that has been following them since they were eight years old. It’s August 2006 and we follow Katie’s sister Kristi and her family as they start to notice strange happenings in their house. This home’s just as big, if not more so, than the one in the original, and it’s disconcerting to find such menace in what appears to be just one of those everyday upper class houses.
First, the good. Tod Williams takes the directing reigns from Oren Peli for this follow-up, and instead of going big and dumb, he keeps the proceedings quiet, allowing the suspense to build throughout. The scares are few and far between, making the moments way more jolting than if there was a ‘boo’ moment every two minutes. And it’s astounding to think possibly the most effective scare in the whole movie takes place in the day time, involving a group of kitchen cabinets. The set-up of the original isn’t neglected but added upon, with Katie and even Micah showing their faces throughout this movie, most before the events of the original movie. Nice touch! Plus there’s actually a good reason for the baby to be in this film, which makes his inclusion make more sense than him just being a random addition to the sequel mix.
Second, the not so good. There are two main elements in Paranormal Activity 2 that keep it from being a great horror film. First, the characters in this one just aren’t nearly as interesting as Katie and Micah in the original. Katie’s sister Kristi is the most tolerable of the bunch, but the teen stepdaughter Ali gets really grating at times, especially with all her annoying camerawork. When there are those safe daytime scenes in the original, the film remains interesting because we want to know what Katie and Micah will do and say next. In this sequel, you keep secretly praying for the movie to go back to nighttime scenes, with most of the daytime material feels more like padding than anything else. Second, there’s not the genuine sense in this sequel that there’s a demon anywhere in the house. While Oren Peli took the time in the first to really make the audience believe there’s an ominous force in that house, director Williams tends to rely more on eye trickery and loud scares than simple footstep noises that make the house feel truly haunted.
Overall Paranormal Activity 2 is a worthy sequel, one that expands on the story of the original and takes it to a whole new level, with a creepy ending that promises more places for this franchise to go. But will there really be seven Paranormals like Saw? Honestly the aesthetic of these films really only warrants maybe one more, and that’s it. Anything past a Part 3 will feel repetitive. There will definitely be another one — this sequel just opened with over forty million dollars, the highest grossing opening of a horror movie ever — but here’s hoping this doesn’t become another Saw franchise. It would be unfortunate and really cheapen that creative breakthrough original. But for now, Paranormal Activity 2 is definitely worth checking out. Just know you might not be able to turn out the light when you go to bed.
Watching Like a Writer
What I love so much about horror is that more often than not it’s just you don’t see on the page or don’t see in the film that is truly frightening. We are at a place now where anything you can think of can be visualized in a movie; therefore, directors will often use the tools at their disposal to shove tons of scary images across the frame. However, it’s those select directors and writers who use restraint in their work that makes the horror really shine through. When the Paranormal Activity series was at its best (the first three, I would argue), the terror came from what you didn’t see but what you imagined you saw or what you imagined could be happening in the next room over. This trait carries over to writing too because while while you can describe every gory detail of your freak creature villain, what will be more satisfying for your reader will be a shadow of that villain, an ominous cry in the dark from that villain. Your reader will always think of something creepier than what is actually delivered. So use restraint in your horror fiction. Don’t show us everything, let us use our imaginations, and the writing will soar every step of the way.
Write a short scene describing a creepy villain in detail, then write the scene again where the creature is in shadow and can only be heard. Which version is better?