Saturday, October 20, 2012

Losing count

I received a telling email earlier this week from the Mission Tiki Drive-In, which sends me weekly notifications of what's opening on their four screens that weekend.

The subject of the email was:


But Paranormal Activity 5 -- the inevitable Paranormal Activity 5 -- does not open until October of 2013. We're only on Paranormal Activity 4 right now.

They got the title right in the body of the email, but I think this speaks volumes about where the Paranormal Activity series seems to be heading:


The parallels between the Paranormal Activity movies and the Saw movies seem to be inescapable. Both series saw (so to speak) a massive hit in the first movie released. Then both series immediately got to work producing a sequel, so it would be ready in time for the next Halloween. Then both series had hits with the sequels, and undertook a basically round-the-clock production schedule so that the next installment in the series would keep being ready for the following Halloween.

It took seven Saw movies before they finally stopped making enough money to be worth continuing. It remains to be seen if Paranormal Activity will get that far, but it's certainly on its way.

The other thing these series have in common is how earnestly they appear to be committed to logically continuing the original storyline. It would stand to reason that when a series gets as far as seven movies in, all it really needs to do is share thematic elements with the original movie to reasonably fall under the same banner. It would hardly seem possible to still be working on the same narrative, trying admirably to work your way out of apparent dead-ends and to continue a serpentine storyline that has long since stopped making sense. Whatever you thought of the Saw movies -- the ones you watched, anyway -- you had to admire how the custodians of the series continued doggedly tying everything together, even four full movies after the series' original antagonist had died.

Just as doggedly, I did watch all seven Saw movies, which is why I know this. I have not, on the other hand, been a Paranormal Activity completist, even though I liked the two movies I did see -- the second one maybe more than the first. I haven't gotten around to watching Paranormal Activity 3, and of course haven't seen 4 as it is only just opening today.

But what I can tell from the trailers is that, indeed, the same character from the first Paranormal Activity, Katie (Katie Featherson), is still around, still doing her possessed night-walking thing. And it would seem that PA would be even less beholden than Saw to continuing with the same characters from the same original events, because Paranormal Activity is more about its increasingly hackneyed medium -- found footage -- than about the particular behavior of possessed people doing spooky things. At least in Saw there was the idea that these perverse tests/punishments were all the brainchild of one demented individual and his proteges, whereas you'd think you could set a Paranormal Activity movie in any home that was equipped with high-tech security cameras. (And isn't it convenient that Katie keeps coming into contact with houses that are so equipped.)

If the critical reaction to Paranormal Activity 4 is any indication, this series may reach the end of its road before Saw did. The current Metascore for PA4 is a tepid 42, down from the 59 scored by its predecessor, the 53 from PA2 and the 68 from the original. (Interesting to see that critics liked the third better than the second. Maybe I ought to prioritize PA3.)

But since when has what the critics said played a role in how long a horror series can keep on procreating? Just check out the ugly Metascores for the entire Saw series: Saw (2004) = 46, Saw II (2005) = 40, Saw III (2006) = 48, Saw IV (2007) = 36, Saw V (2008) = 19 (!), Saw VI (2009) = 30 and Saw 3D/Saw: The Final Chapter (2010) = 24. Not a single one above 50, not even the original. Whereas Paranormal Activity is only just now dipping below 50.

So if you take the tendency of critics to sniff at movies intended for the masses and therefore add about 20 points to their Metascores as an estimation of how the public feels about them, PA4 will be another huge hit at the box office. And maybe Katie Featherston will still be walking around in a trance and snapping people's necks on into 2017 or 2018.


Mike Lippert said...

You could also say that both series' were ripped off from far better films prior (Seven and Blair Witch in these cases).

The strange thing about PA and why I don't think it will last as long as Saw is that the Saw movies, like em or not, were movies. They always picked up where the last one left off and always added something new to progress the story even though the point was always the same: the torture scenes.

PA 1-3 however are all the exact same movie. Did anyone leave PA 2 feeling engaged by knowing more about these characters, the events that led up to the first film, etc? I certainly didn't and by the end of 3 all I could think of was "holy hell these two girls grew up relativly well adjusted all things considered."

These movies, even more than Saw, are assembly line products. Sure the characters continue to be the same (probably more to justify continuing to use the PA title more than anything)and they all come down to the same thing: waiting for the scares. The fact that everyone knows they are coming keeps people on the edge of their seats and that's the appeal. End of story.

At least in Saw we continue to learn things about Jigsaw, his motives, etc. in PA we just get the exact same experience every once a year.

Don Handsome said...

The thing that keeps me coming back to PA (I’ve seen 1-3 and will see 4) versus Saw (I stopped after 2) is that in jumping time frames, the franchise has more to do to convince you of its legitimacy than Saw ever did. What I saw in Saw II and the previews of other Saws was a franchise that could only grow in the intricacy of how it killed its characters – this is just not that interesting to me. There was no technical growth that could be done. With PA, I’ve enjoyed the technical achievement that each installment has represented – the third one especially which jumps back in time a decade or two and therefor has a technology void to fill with behind the camera tricks that we can’t see and clever use of household items on screen.

I will admit that the story is minimal but there is enough there to maintain a semblance of reasonable connection – that, along with its minor technological achievement would be enough to convince me to pop in on Paranormal Activity on video. But pair those reasons with the fact that I pine away for good ghost stories (and not torture stories) in the theater at this time of year, and I think it’s totally reasonable that I’ve paid for PA in the theater for four years in a row.

Vancetastic said...

These comments are great, almost like a pro and con. Thank you.

Mike! It's good to hear from you again. I checked your blog as recently as a week ago, and it still had the post from March. Since then, four, count 'em, four new posts. Can't wait to catch up.

I think you make a good point with regard to the Saw movies. Indeed, even after he's dead, the series' most interesting character by far is John Kramer. If he did not appear in every movie at least in flashback, these movies would not be what they are, which is tolerable at the most basic level. I mean, no one is going to see those movies for Costas Mandylor. And I genuinely do respect the writers' nearly demented attempts to keep the chronology straight, even when they fail in utterly spectacular ways (Saw IV has about the most WTF ending for any movie you've ever seen).

But Don, you also make a good point about getting what you want out of Paranormal Activity. Horror is clearly divided between the splatter side and the startle side, to use two words that have sort of an alliterative relationship to one another. PA is definitely better on the startle side than the splatter side, and the opposite is true for Saw. Interestingly, I find both reasons to go to the movies valid in their own ways. I like torture porn because some of the imagery haunts me at the root of my soul. However, I like being startled and genuinely scared because when it's at its best, it makes you laugh nervously and fills you with exhilaration. I guess it's just a "to each his own" kind of thing.

Unfortunately, I can't really comment on the going back in time element you praise because I haven't seen PA3 yet. But it sounds like I should.

Vancetastic said...

Oh, and Mike, I never directly recognized the debt that Saw owes to Seven, but you're absolutely right. PA/Blair Witch is more evident because there are relatively fewer movies (but not by a lot these days) in the found footage genre.