Tag: paranormal activity

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Ever since the nosedive that is called “Paranormal Activity 3” in which Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are responsible for, I dreaded yet another installment that was released. The series may be a multimillion-dollar franchise but new ideas that work are desert dry. So, to create a semblance of thought or imagination, the writers tend to “connect” all of the movies during the final act. It comes off desperate and I am offended because the approach is not only lazy, it is an insult to the intelligence. Although I did enjoy “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones,” written and directed by Christopher Landon, to an extent, it is guilty of committing the same thing.

Having a Mexican-American protagonist and supporting characters is a welcome change. Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and his friends, Hector (Jorge Diaz) and Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh), look and talk like people I know or have grown up with. I even shared their sense of humor and so when the horror elements are not front and center, my attention did not waver. Furthermore, the grandmother (Renee Victor) is a good source of entertainment since the writing has found a way to incorporate superstition with genuinely comedic moments. She is even made fun of for believing in spells, cleanses, and putting up strange things around the house for protection. I looked at the main character’s grandmother and adored her because in some ways I saw my own.

The plot is ordinary but it works. After graduating high school, Jesse uses some of the money he had received from relatives to buy a video camera off a pawn shop. Initially, it is used to record silly things but when Jesse and Hector hear strange noises—moans, whispers, and screams—from the apartment directly below, they put the camera down the vent to see what exactly is going on. It is amusing at first and then it starts to get strange.

I am thankful for the writer-director for not using the awful time lapse technique where a possessed character stands over another’s bed for hours. With the exception of the original picture because the idea is something new, I never thought it was scary or creepy. In the previous films, it used so much that one gets the impression the filmmakers are only filling in the minutes. Here, something is always going on. My heart rate increased just a bit every time Jesse and his friends explore the apartment downstairs.

I wished it had shown less. At some point, the film begins to have elements of Josh Trank’s “Chronicle.” The special and visual effects, though impressive, feel completely detached from the movie. A character starts to get possessed eventually. We see levitation, disappearing acts, a room in ruins in just a blink of an eye.

An angle that might have been worth exploring is the transformation’s slow burn. For instance, William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” is scary because we get to experience the little girl’s transformation through the mother’s desperation. We feel for the mother’s panic and we fear for her safety. And yet we understand why she must put herself in danger. The possessed is her daughter, after all. A horror picture is most effective when it stimulates the deepest corners of the viewer’s hearts and minds. This franchise lacks that very quality and it is a mystery to me why people think it’s “so scary.”

“Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” is an improvement over the last two installments and it is arguably the best since the first. However, it is not strong all the way through. The final third is a compilation of uninspired sequences. Gangsters use guns at one point. I laughed at this. And then I knew: The final scene will “connect” somehow to the previous movies. I dare the next filmmakers who will helm the future sequels to detach themselves from the muck.

Skinwalker Ranch

Skinwalker Ranch (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another example on how not to execute a found footage film.

A mysterious organization called Modern Defense Enterprises sends a team to Skinwalker Ranch, a place that has recently been mired in controversy due to the disappearance of a rancher’s son. Although the boy’s literal vanishing is documented on camera, which involves a droning sound and a blinding flash of light, a few people still believe that it has somehow been altered to hide what might have really happened.

“Skinwalker Ranch,” written by Adam Ohler and directed by Devin McGinn, does not seem to know what it wishes to accomplish. It looks and feels embarrassingly messy and so it is—for the most part—a trial to sit through. We want to figure out what is happening but it does not appear to have the discipline to A) stick to one path and explore it for all its worth or B) traverse multiple paths and provide the necessary, sensical linkages so that its mythology makes sense as a whole. As a result, what we have here is a cheap hybrid knock-off of M. Night Shyamalan’s excellent “Signs” and Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity.”

Why does the majority of every mysterious happening occur at night? First, the periphery of the ranch is dark. One would think that the fancy organization would provide its investigators high-tech cameras to overcome a simple element like darkness. Second, it does not help that the inside of the house has consistently poor lightning. It is not a good sign when the clearest thing we can see on screen is the time stamp. Third, the picture has the tendency to use glitches just when something intense is occurring; instead of being scared or curious, I was angry and frustrated because I could not see anything.

If glitches and statics are not bad enough, there is incessant shaking of the handheld camera. Still, however, that is not the worst part: while running away from a supposedly scary thing, the camera is occasionally pointed at the ground. I wondered if the director ever bothered to review a scene he had just shot and, if so, how many times. How closely did he look at the images? Was he really convinced that what he had just shot could scare someone over the age of five or did he just want to go home early that day?

Some may argue that found footages movies are supposed to create an illusion that what the audience is watching is real. While I do not disagree, many filmmakers translate this conceit as an absolute and forgetting the most important point (and elementary, in my opinion): they are still making a movie that is designed to entertain. Therefore, at the very least, the images are not supposed to be incomprehensible—something I could have recorded myself while blindfolded.

I have not even gone into the film’s premise which is a shame because I thought it had potential. I was curious to know if what was really happening involved extraterrestrials or a different kind of beast. But because of the incompetent techniques from behind the camera coupled with a screenplay that lacks practicality and energy, the curious story is drowned. Needless to say, steer far away—very far away—from “Skinwalker Ranch.” Despite the commotion the characters undergo, its core is empty and the periphery is nothing special.

A Haunted House

A Haunted House (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Malcolm (Marlon Wayans) buys a new camera to commemorate Kisha (Essence Atkins), his girlfriend, moving into his home. Although moving in together can be a trial for many couples, from getting acclimated to annoying habits of one’s partner to dealing with an increasing lack of excitement due to constantly being around one another, it seems as though they have a more… supernatural problem on their plate. Objects start to go missing or ending up in the wrong place. Kisha is convinced that there is a ghost; Malcolm thinks there is a burglar. It isn’t long until they hire a psychic (Nick Swardson) to investigate.

There is no denying that “A Haunted House” is yet another tired parody of horror movies. This time, it pokes fun of Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” (as well as some of its sequels), William Brent Bell’s “The Devil Inside,” William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist,” and, to some extent, John Erick Dowdle’s “Quarantine.” It isn’t that it is bereft of laughter. I laughed sporadically. The problem is in the screenplay: it is so desperate for laughs that it is willing to throw anything on the screen. As a result, the comedy is scattered and aimless.

It is too busy burrowing so much from its inspirations that the writers, Marlon Wayans and Rick Alvarez, neglect to establish a semblance of a story. I was not expecting an original plot–it is a parody after all. A basic foundation of storytelling is not too much to ask for. Instead, it is simply composed of familiar setups: after a character tinkers with a camera in the room, something bizarre starts to happen, and characters react. While the freak-outs are amusing in the beginning, it is exhausted about halfway through, and by the end it is nothing but cheap and annoying.

Much of the humor relies on sex–rather, the awkwardness of the concept. It is immature in a lot of ways, and I believe on purpose, but some work. I had a laughing fit at the scene involving Malcolm pretending to have sex with–not one, not two, but three–stuffed animals as he waits for Kisha getting ready for bed. The several sexual positions combined with Wayans’ enthusiasm to make it very funny prove fruitful. It’s silly, dirty fun, nothing more.

But then it goes for unnecessarily offensive humor. The bodily humor did not bother me so much. Rather, I was offended with its occasional reliance on black stereotypes. At one point black hoodlums–wearing baggy jeans, wife beater shirts, and talking “ghetto”–get invited to the house. They talk big game, every breath a threat. They believe what they are up against is something they can beat up and scare away using their fists. Once they learn that a ghost is involved, they run away screaming like girls. The scene is not at all funny so I wondered why it made the final cut. It is a missed opportunity to subvert certain stereotypes.

Furthermore, it is homophobic at times. Chip, the psychic, hits on Malcolm consistently despite the lead character telling him many times that he is neither interested nor has had any sexual experience with other men. Chip is written so relentlessly creepy that, I think, people who watch the film who are not used to having gay people around them will likely have their fears and stereotypes magnified.

Directed by Michael Tiddes, “A Haunted House” starts off tolerable but devolves into an endurance test. The colorful characters who are allowed by the screenplay to enter the house during the climax is telling if its own scarcity of ideas: punchlines that have been delivered before rehashed into familiar shrill shrieking and clowning around.

Paranormal Activity 3

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Katie (Katie Featherston) delivered a box of videotapes to her sister’s house (Sprague Grayden) which contained events in September 1988 when young Katie (Chloe Csengery) and young Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) lived with their mom, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). Julie and Dennis decided to make a sex tape. Just when things began to become pornographic, they were interrupted by an earthquake. As the couple ran from the room to get the kids, the camera captured an invisible figure with the help from the dust that fell from the ceiling. This strange occurrence inspired Dennis to install cameras for two reasons: to gather evidence that there really was a ghost in the house and to see what it wanted from them. “Paranormal Activity 3,” written by Christopher Landon and Oren Peli, did not only deliver a dearth of genuine scares, it offered only one piece of new information that connected Katie and Kristi’s stories from Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” and Tod Williams’ “Paranormal Activity 2,” respectively. When the credits rolled, I wondered why they even bothered. There was no connection, as a family, between the characters and everyone seemed to be playing dumb. They consistently waited to hear weird noises or see furnitures move by themselves instead of actually doing something to try to prevent them from happening again. Perhaps I would have felt more scared for the family if the parents were more protective of their children by allowing their instincts to take over once in a while. Sometimes we just know that there’s something really wrong. We don’t wait for all the facts before taking action especially when it comes to survival. If Dennis reviewed the tapes each day, I didn’t understand why the filmmakers did not allow him to see the videos in which Katie’s bed was moved by an unknown force and she being violently dragged across the floor. That was an important moment, a potential climax, and it should have been shown. If I was their father and I saw what happened to my kids the night before, there was no way I was going to stay in that house and allow my children to be harmed. In some instances, the film failed to milk what they had. Dennis and Julie hired a babysitter (Johanna Braddy) so they could have some alone time in the city. It was the ’80s and teen slasher flicks, most of them involved babysitters, dominated the horror genre. It could have been more pointed with its irony when the house ghost, with a white sheet over its head, inched toward Lisa as she read a book in the kitchen. Once the sheet fell to the ground, the tension was gone and it reverted to being a soporific bore. “Paranormal Activity 3,” directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, had very limited tricks up its sleeve. I was thunderstruck not because of the visual effects behind the paranormal happenings which, by the way, were just mediocre, but because of its overall lack of imagination to propel the story forward. If I were to compile a ratio between scenes of nothing happening and “scares,” the former would outweigh the latter by a factor of five.

Lake Mungo

Lake Mungo (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

While swimming in a local dam with her family, Alice (Talia Zucker) was suddenly nowhere to be seen. After calling the proper authorities, a search began while the Palmer family anxiously waited for the grim news. Soon enough, Alice’s body was found. But that was just the beginning. Two days after Alice was buried, strange things began to occur around the house. The brother, Mathew (Martin Sharpe), heard strange noises coming from the room of the deceased. The father, Russell (David Pledger), claimed that he saw his daughter going about her business as if nothing ever happened. Meanwhile, the mother, June (Rosie Traynor), had nightmares that there was a spirit in the house. Written and directed by Joel Anderson, “Lake Mungo” was a well-made faux-documentary about a family in grief who genuinely believed that there was a ghost in their home. Since the ominous presence was palpable, the family decided to set up cameras around the house to capture, if any, the entity that they felt was there. Naturally, comparison’s between “Lake Mungo” and Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” could not be helped because both had somewhat similar styles. However, I preferred this film in terms of realism because no one, like a possessed person, directly looked into camera and attempted to scare the viewers. It was straight-faced all the way through; there were no cheap punches designed to remind us that since what we were observing was scary, it meant that we were getting our money’s worth. I was completely in the moment. I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts, but every time the camera zoomed in on a paused video footage which contained a (mostly blurry) ghostly figure in the background, my heart rate went up as I held my breath in anticipation. But the film wasn’t just about Palmer family being haunted by an inexplicable paranormal phenomenon. The second half was revealed to be about the secrets that Alice kept from her family and how, sadly, no one really knew who she really was when she passed away. The writer-director’s decision to change gears half-way through was a smart and brave move especially within the confines of the newly revived found footage subgenre. There was a natural flow in the way we learned about literal ghost that appeared in house. Initially, it was mild curiosity; then it was meticulously creepy; finally, it was unexpectedly terrifying. The other kind of ghost, our memories of a loved one when they’re no longer with us, was explored in a meaningful way. Interestingly enough, if the scenes when we were given a chance to see Alice’s ghost were taken out completely, it would still be a strong story of a family trying to cope and move on. That’s what a look for in a good movie: If I can take out one crucial strand and it doesn’t fall apart, I know that it has something special. “Lake Mungo” had many tricks up its sleeve. It challenged us to wade through the truths, lies, and possibilities. Though its budget was limited, it didn’t feel cheap because it understood universal emotions like fear and mourning.

Paranormal Activity 2

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

A family of four, led by Daniel and Kristi (Brian Boland and Sprague Grayden), decided to set up cameras all over the house because they believed someone vandalized their home while they were on vacation. Several days after the cameras were set up, the family reviewed the recorded images and started to notice strange things like objects moving by themselves. We observed baby Hunter (played by William Juan Prieto and Jackson Xenia Prieto) focused on something while in his crib in the middle of the night. Ali (Molly Ephraim), the eldest child, initially thought it was cool that the house was haunted so, along with her boyfiend (Seth Ginsberg), they tried to communicate with the spirits using a Ouija board. That’s never a good idea. “Paranormal Activity 2,” directed by Tod Williams, had a solid rising action. It was similar to its predecessor, directed by Oren Peli, because it managed to convey chilling images by showing very little. For instance, when the mother started hearing noises in the baby’s room and found that the weird noise wasn’t there, she headed to the connecting bathroom. Then something small would move near the crib. It obviously wasn’t the wind because the doors and windows were shut. When the mother returned to the room, the object ceased to move. It was scary because it defied physics. A moving object can’t abruptly stop moving without some force acting against it. Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie’s (Katie Featherston) return worked in some ways. Their appearance reminded me of why I enjoyed the first picture so much. They had good chemistry and their interactions were playful and amusing. But when the film started to weave in and explain how Micah and Katie’s story was related to the family in question, it felt forced. It began to feel like I was in a room watching a home movie and the writers were next to me as they attempted to write the script using a loud typewriter. It lacked believability. Once the kitchen cabinets and drawers were flung open at the same time, it was downhill from there because it wanted to increase the ante. But it didn’t need to. I missed the amusing scenes when Martine (Vivis Cortez), the family’s nanny, believed the house was haunted so she tried to let the good spirits inside using various incense and prayers. I also thought it was funny when Ali “researched” haunted houses and seemed to believe everything she read on the internet. The boyfriend just smiled because he knew how silly it was. It was simple, but I think it worked as a commentary for the young and not-so-young’s dependence on computers when we desperately need information. “Paranormal Activity 2” had some good scares and uncomfortable (but fun) chuckles as byproduct of stress (or fear) but it offered nothing new.

The Last Exorcism

The Last Exorcism (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) agreed to have his last exorcism to be documented on camera. In the first few minutes, he admitted to us that exorcism was only real in the minds of religious Christians plagued by something they cannot explain. In other words, the placebo effect guided the effectiveness of an exorcism. Despite Reverend Marcus being a sham, strangely enough, I understood why he made a career out of it because he had an obligation to provide for his family, especially his son who had difficulty hearing. Understandably, people feel the need to compare the movie to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ “The Blair Witch Project” and Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” because of its faux-documentary style. But I say it was more like John Erick Dowdle’s chilling remake “Quarantine.” However, I think “The Last Exorcism” had its own identity and therefore its own strengths and weaknesses. The film was its best when it described the history of the practice, the circumstances in which one should get an exorcism, and the religious heretics so willing to go to the extreme to the point where they became blind to more conventional explanations such as the so-called possessed person having an undiagnosed disease or mental disability. I was also happy with the fact that it acknowledged the cruel act still happening today in various forms depending on the culture. The picture thrived on the build-up of strange information especially when we finally met a farmer (Louis Herthum) with a creepy son (Caleb Landry Jones) and “possessed” daughter (Ashley Bell). The rising action of the girl sleepwalking, killing animals, being violent and making strange noises was unsettling and sometimes downright horrifying. However, the movie’s weakness was its own conceit. The faux-documentary style did not always work because there were times when the daughter, in an altered state, would pick up the camera and we saw what she saw and did. I loved that the film was purposely comedic, especially in the first half when the techniques of the scam were revealed, but the comedy and horror did not always complement each other in one scene. Instead of feeling scared, I felt detached and I almost felt the need to laugh because there was an underlying message that the devil despised the constructed false (if not almost illusory) reality like in movies mentioned earlier and reality shows on television. I also found some inconsistencies such as the addition of music during the scarier scenes (it was supposed to be a found footage!) and camera angles that only one cameraman can normally accomplish. Although I give kudos to Daniel Stamm, the director, for infusing a sense of (sort of campy) fun and intelligence in his project, I wanted more scenes where I find myself cowering in my shoes. I suppose that’s the reason why a lot of people did not like the movie: they wanted to feel more scared. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed “The Last Exorcism” because it was concise, confident with where it wanted to go and what it wanted to achieve, and its constant build-up was elegant. It made me think of respectable horror pictures from the late 60’s and ’70s.

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★

Written and directed by Oren Peli, “Paranormal Activity” claims to be real but it is far from it because, well, it was written and directed by someone. So save yourself the embarrassment and don’t yell out, “It’s real! It’s real!” in front of everyone. A couple from San Diego, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, decided to record the paranormal happenings in their house from September to October 2006. Katie was apprehensive of the idea because she has a history of a ghost following her ever since she was a child. Micah went ahead anyway because, a typical guy that he was, he wanted to record something awesome instead of taking the safer route. The movie started off with funny moments between the couple but it became more grim the deeper we got into the film. I’m not talking about just scary noises in the hallway. I’m talking about footprints, shadows, Ouija boards, sleepwalking, possession, and exploring the idea of a possible exorcism.

Comparisons with the highly influential and effective horror film that everyone thought was real at the time of its release in 1999, “The Blair Witch Project,” is inevitable. (I wonder why suddenly most people nowadays really dislike that movie.) Both movies used a hand-held camera that was shaky and it played upon one of people’s greatest fears: the unknown. Both movies also used the technique of a continuous rising action and ending the movie during its climax for full effect (and discussions after walking out of the multiplex). Although I consider “The Blair Witch Project” to be a better movie, it’s really all a matter of personal taste. I believe “Paranormal Activity” more than held its own because it captured genuine thrills and chills that most movies with big budgets (and far better special and visual effects) cannot. That fact alone should make the actors and the director proud of their work.

Essentially, “Paranormal Activity” thrived on realism. If you believe in demons or ghosts (or even if you’re not sure they exist–a group of which I belong in), chances are you will be cowering in your seat. If you don’t believe it demons or ghosts at all, chances are you’re going to laugh at the whole thing and maybe you shouldn’t even spend money to watch it. (Maybe catch it on DVD because it really is quite impressive.) I thought the movie was scary because it’s a classic haunted house movie: we see shadows, noises, and the things they do to the objects around the couple. And yes, they eventually do something to our protagonists other than scaring them out of their minds and desperately wanting to call an exorcist for help. I loved the bedroom scenes because those are when things started to get very… interesting. Even though the setting was rendundant (the whole movie was shot in one house), the things that were happening (that shouldn’t happen in the first place) was not. With each bedroom scene, the level of scare factor was amplified exponentially–by the fourth of fifth bedroom scene, I really wanted to look away because I found myself imagining the “What Ifs” when I would be the one sleeping and all the lights would be off.

This is not the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. But it is one of those movies that I couldn’t help but think about afterwards. Despite what we know (or “understand” might be a better word) of science, and as a person who values science, we shouldn’t disregard certain possibilities just because we haven’t gathered enough support about them. If you’re tired of the same generic slasher films and remakes that Hollywood is spitting out every week, then do yourself a favor and see this one. Stop reading spoilers and hoping that the fear will wane after you’ve read a description. Because chances are, images are stronger than words. And even if you don’t end up liking it, at least you’re supporting a small movie. By doing so, perhaps big studio executives would stop being so elitist and support smaller films in the future–a movement that I strongly believe in because, in my experience as a young cinéphile, most of the time smaller films have great ideas and better execution than big Hollywood movies.