Monday Morning Critic – Paranormal Activity 4 (Review, Spoilers, Sequel Ideas & Pontifications)

Every Monday morning, InsidePulse Movies Czar Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings an irreverent and oftentimes hilarious look at pop culture, politics, sports and whatever else comes to mind. And sometimes he writes about movies.

With so little of interest coming out next weekend, and nothing really of note happening news wise, this week I want to look at Paranormal Activity 4 a bit more. I already reviewed it in theatres, and have seen all four in the series so far, as the whole PA thing has kind of intrigued me on a number of levels. Normally horror films bore me, as I have never been a fan of the genre and tend to be kind of insulting towards it, but this particular franchise and its story-telling devices intrigue me on a number of levels. It takes a lot for a horror film to make me interested in it on anything more than a cursory level, admittedly, but this franchise is fascinating on a number of levels.

Its inception from essentially a Clerks style home movie that managed to become one of the biggest successes of 2007 is remarkable. Costing $15,000 to produce and nearly crossing $200 million in box office grosses when all was said and done has made it the most successful film of all time in terms of box office to production cost. It was a film that showed the power of platform marketing, as well, and also didn’t involve giving anything away in a trailer either. It was basically “this film is scary” and people flocked to it. There wasn’t anything unique about the film’s plot, a standard demonic possession film, but the setup was ingenious. It gave the film a personal feel; the film’s amateurish look made the device of the video camera that more effective.

I thought it was an insanely overrated film, mainly because the only new thing it did was the “found footage” aspect to the possession genre, but it was something most horror films aren’t as far as I’m concerned: interesting. It was the same thing with Saw when it first came out, if only because of the newness of it. I like it when film-makers try something new instead of working with formula; it may ultimately fail but pushing the genre in an alternate direction is risky. Risky film-making always interests me and apparently lots of people were interested too. It may not succeed but taking a risk is something to be admired when it comes to creative types.

It was only a matter of time before the film franchise effectively replaced Saw as a Halloween staple and it ushered out the era of torture porn horror films; the use of found footage as a plot device is now the latest overblown horror technique. Horror porn was quickly becoming passé, becoming the “old and busted” to the found footage’s “new hotness,” and it reshaped the marketplace in impressive fashion. It was a watershed moment in cinema, like how Die Hard effectively ended the ‘80s one man army action film with its overly muscled action heroes for a more natural aesthetic. And with the franchise also came responsibilities as the man who created the first film, Oren Peli, stepped away. And so far we got some interesting choices for direction.

Tod Williams tackled the second film, which was about as good as the first, and remains the only film of note of the three he’s made. He’s more famous for who he’s married (Famke Janssen and then Gretchen Mol) than his film career. Considering he married both of the attractive women in Rounders that has to count for something probably. He’s succeeded in life in a way he hasn’t succeeded in Hollywood for the most part. He’s similar to a professional athlete who had one great season in a career filled with less than stellar ones. Williams can always go when people point out that he made two other films that didn’t do anything that he crafted one of the biggest grossing horror sequels of all time. That’s a feather in a cap that few people have. The film didn’t capture the box office grosses of the first but was still insanely profitable, clearing almost $180 million against a $3 million budget. In terms of being successful it’s hard to top that kind of profit even after marketing, publicity and advertising costs are subtracted.

Then the Catfish guys took over.

The franchise has been just as successful with the makers of a “documentary” that is about two years from being labeled as another “found footage” film instead of as a proper documentary. When Morgan Spurlock thinks your film is a fake then you need to just flat out admit, I say, but for how people still call it “non-fiction.” I may not be a successful documentary film-maker but Spurlock is; sometimes you have to trust the instincts of those with more expertise. When he’s calling shenanigans I’ll listen much like when Wally Pfister discusses why he didn’t like The Avengers. I will give those guys credit, though, as the two have taken this style and managed to be insanely successful with someone else’s material.

The third and now fourth films in the franchise (not including a Japanese version which was also fairly successful but isn’t considered in the canon) have all been insanely profitable just from box office grosses. Paramount justifiably announced on Sunday that a fifth film was coming, mainly because there’s more money to be made off it. It’s not all that surprising and so far a sequel is kind of needed to continue the overall arc. Considering they’re expanding the franchise to a Latino audience with a similar sequel/spin-off of sorts, based on the after the credits spiel for PA4, continuing the arc is the only thing they can do at this point. There isn’t enough in PA4‘s ending to really say it’s over. There’s no definitive ending, which is ok in a lot of ways.

What do we know so far? So far all we really know is that Katie and her sister were pretty much hosed from the time they were kids and that this is demon has been messing with them their whole lives. Now it seems to have permanently inhabited Katie as part of the coven her family belonged to eons ago. Kristi’s son is the key, being the first born son and there to be sacrificed as part of some ancient Faustian bargain her family made over a century ago, and he’ll probably end up playing a big part of the next two films in the franchise. I don’t see how they can make this stretch beyond six films, which would be a feat to celebrate on any number of levels, because the overall mythos of that particular cinematic universe have been fleshed out fairly strongly so far. Right now we have the basic gist behind it but are missing the particulars.

It’s like having a game plan to fight UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva that starts with “take him down and hold him there for 25 minutes” but without the particulars, like setting up a double leg off a combination that ends with a straight right. We know a handful of things: there was a bargain for something with a first born son to be given up, a long line of daughters first born and a cult-like coven with all sorts of messed up things involving a demon. My guess is that somewhere in the next film there’ll be a revelation about a child to be sacrificed on his 18th birthday for something and in the final film we find out the final, grisly details about it all.

PA4 opened up with a massive box office and could wind up being the most successful of the series, crazily enough. It opened with $30 million this weekend, which is impressive for any film this time of year, and it’s the sign the franchise may not be creatively fresh but the masses will come out for the film as long as you deliver the usual requirements for a film like this. How it ends, though, is still going to get me to plunk down my cash to see.

A Movie A Week – The Challenge

This Week’s DVD – Ghost Town

Since I just spent 1,000 words writing about a film franchise that focuses on the supernatural, why not a comedy that tackles the same genre in a different way? Thus this week is Ghost Town.

It’s a fairly simple premise. Gervais has a near death experience and winds up being able to see ghosts. One of them winds up being Greg Kinnear who used to live in his building. His widow (Tea Leoni) is about to marry a guy who’s a bit shady and he wants him to break it up.

Shenanigans ensue.

When it comes to comedy Ricky Gervais is one of the funniest guys out there. He just hasn’t been able to catch the right film at the right time and this is the wrong film at the wrong time. It’s funny on occasion but it misses that “clever” aspect to Gervais’s comedy style. It’s a solid view and has just enough funny to make you think it could be great but doesn’t quite have that final gear to turn it up that notch.

Slightly recommended.

What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 Pints of Bass Ale and community college co-eds with low standards at the Alumni Club

Chasing Mavericks – A kid wants to surf deadly waves. Gerard Butler teaches him how.

See It – Gerard Butler in a film that isn’t a romantic comedy usually turns out to be good stuff.

Cloud Atlas – The adaptation of another allegedly “unfilmable” novel about how we’re all interconnected or something.

Skip It – The film approaches three hours in length and looks like it’ll either be amazing or horrible with no point in between. The Wachowski Brothers haven’t made a decent film since The Matrix and I doubt their streak ends with this one.

Fun Size – A girl loses her brother, who she’s babysitting, when she goes to a party with her crush. Queue the nerd recruiting and kid finding.

Skip It – It’s a PG rated teen comedy. Meh.

Silent Hill: Revelation 3D – A sequel to Silent Hill.

Skip It – Movies based off video games tend to never hit anything above “entertaining crap” and don’t expect much more from this one, which is a sequel to a slightly above mediocre film.

Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .

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