“A Look at the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY Franchise”
With the release of Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015) a franchise with six entries finally comes to an end unfortunately more with a whimper than a bang. When Paranormal Activity (2007) was first given a wide release in 2009 it stole the thunder at the Box Office from Saw VI, a franchise which had dominated the month of October for the previous five years.
There was a lot of hype for the original Paranormal Activity as it was a low budget film that almost never got a theatrical release if not for the slow roll out to colleges first before catching lightening in a bottle with mainstream audiences. It was a simple story about a couple who start to experience strange things in their home. When the man starts to film more of the strange paranormal events he gets closer to realizing the truth. A truth that he will wish he had never known. The film was a surprise success not due to any star power or major SFX or even a complicated script. In fact, it was simplistic in terms of script but it created a lot of suspense and kept audiences on the edge of its seat. A found footage film hadn’t had this much of an effect on audiences since The Blair Witch Project (1999) but unlike that franchise (which was dead on arrival with the second film), the producers of the Paranormal Activity franchise found a way to expand upon their world in a satisfying way for audiences.
I personally didn’t think that there was much to the original Paranormal Activity film. To a long time horror fan such as myself this wasn’t even nearly as entertaining or memorable as The Blair Witch Project but what it did have was presence. I saw this film on opening night in a sold out theater after general audiences got wind of the film. It was amazing to see and hear the audiences’ reactions to the film which was suspenseful despite being very low key and horrifying without any blood or gore. It was a film about real people facing the unknown and that’s what audiences gravitated to – the possibility that this could really happen to anyone. With the overwhelming success of this film a franchise was born!
Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) did something unbelievable. It decided to tell a story parallel to the first film but from the perspective of the sister of the first film who experiences her own paranormal occurrence. For those audiences that saw the original ending to the original film (before it was changed to create a more marketable film) there was never an intension for any sequels but you can’t keep a money making franchise down. With an “actual” budget this time around this film crafted a story that adds to the first film while also opening up a bigger mythology that answered just as many questions that it asked. Another thing that worked out extremely well was the cliffhanger ending that appeased audiences while also keeping them wanting more.
I didn’t really care for this film either but again I saw this film on opening night with a packed audience who ate this film up. When this film was released it was just before Saw 3D (aka The Final Chapter) which again would be buried under the dirt. This was a successful film that broke expectations (especially those thinking this would be just another case of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2). What I loved about this film and the previous film was the way in which it was world building. Due to the success of the Saw franchise which extended the story by linking back to previous films and characters with each subsequent film, the Paranormal Activity films were doing the exact same thing and they were doing it well. For a franchise that I didn’t really care anything about, it sure had me hooked. I also liked the way that they decided to use security cameras to tell the story which was very creative and this aesthetic would place a bigger part in latter films.
It was with Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) that I (finally) became a fan of the franchise and would forever be hooked. This film played as a prequel to show the sisters of the original films as young girls who are first introduced into the world of the paranormal. To me, choosing the girls as children to be the main focus of the film brought some welcomed freshness to the franchise and a much needed added suspense since innocent children in danger is always a good way to get audiences invested in the characters and the story. I think this film is the point at which the franchise hits its highest mark and so did mainstream audiences as this would become the highest grossing of all the films in the franchise. This film had all the suspense of the previous films but by corrupting the innocence of children it made it more potent as a horror film.
It is at this point that I started to recommend the franchise to other horror fans. For most of my friends the first two films in the franchise were pretty tame and not as memorable as say Cannibal Holocaust (1980) or Man Bites Dog (1992) or even Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) in terms of found footage films but with this third film I had a reason to tell people to look out for this franchise because this was a film I would recommend to anyone.
Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) is a step down from the previous film for no other reason that it had a lot to live up to coming from the high water mark of the previous film. This film actually follows a new family and steps away from the main family from the previous three films (which is now only in the background). This may have been a mistake but it was a needed one in order to open up the world that was continuing to be built. A bigger mistake was using teenagers as the main characters for the film. Unfortunately, that is the mistake of most horror films which is using teenagers as the protagonists which is a cliché and these films have never been a cliché, until now. Audiences agreed and did not come out for this outing. This film barely grossed $54 million domestically whereas the previous films had grossed $107, $84.8, and $104 million, respectfully. This was a huge drop but because the production budget was only $5 million (and the film grossed 0ver $89 million internationally) it turned a profit and the franchise was still alive, especially since two more films had already been green lit.
The next film in the franchise is the first spin-off with Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014). A much different film as it explores demonic possession from a completely different area. It has been hinted at in the previous films but here it is front and center. Another added bonus is the fact that this is the first film to put the camera in the hands of the main characters and it explores more locations. The previous film used laptop cameras which the main character moved around but this film really puts it in the characters hands adding a new dimension to the franchise. This film really tries to establish itself from the previous films and does a unique job of it by adding more of a supernatural element to the main character and opens the doors for unspeakable possibilities.
Like the original film, there is a lot of world building in this film but what I really love about this film is how it ends which somehow links up with the previous films in a franchise. I’d tell you but then it would be ruining one of the best parts of this film.
I think this film is a mixed bag for fans of the franchise. Friends of mine who may have seen the previous films skipped over this one altogether while others have seen this film but not necessarily all of the others. This is a film that can stand on its own despite the way in which it links up to all the previous films in the series. This can only be said of the original film and Part 3. This film is the lowest grossing at this point and it has become obvious that audiences are now losing faith with the franchise. This film was released in January unlike all the other films that were released in October. This was mainly because Part 5 was to be released in October but due to the lackluster response of this film the next “official” film in the saga would be pushed back a year.
Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension may not have originally been designed as to be the last in the franchise (especially if the previous film had been a huge hit) but if you’re going to end a franchise try to do so in a big way, so, this film would be the first to get the digital 3-D upgrade and actually bring the story to an end, which really means that audiences would finally get know who and what the infamous Toby is. You can’t draw out a franchise for too long and this franchise was releasing one a year for up to six years (Saw did so for seven years before it). It also didn’t help that the found footage genre was over saturated. I personally loved the idea of having a “ghost” camera in the film to be a new element in telling the story and even though the film ends the story in regards to Toby there are so many other elements left unanswered. It’s not as satisfying an ending to the franchise as Saw 3D was to that franchise. This film feels like just another sequel and part of an ever expanding story.
There are many reasons why this film did not do well at the Box office and was quickly forgotten chief among them being that the film had a limited release that was simultaneous with its VOD release (so many theaters refused to carry the film). The marketing campaign was not as strong as with previous films and neither found footage nor 3D are ways to sell the film. Without a unique hook to get people into the seats the only people this film was going to appeal to were the fans which would go see the film regardless of the gimmicks used to produce and sell the film.
I like found footage films. I like the genre and 2015 had many such releases with The Gallows, The Visit, and Unfriended, to name a few. It is not a genre mainstream audience even care for anymore due to the glut of films over the last few years that have disappointed. This being said, it’s a shame that despite six official films (and the unofficial Paranormal Activity: Tokyo Night which has not had an official US release as yet) this is a franchise that will disappear with a whimper instead of a bang which is not the way this franchise should be remembered.