Franchise Marathon No. 1: Paranormal Activity (2007 - Present)
Updated: Aug 13
As if I didn’t have enough unfinished projects for this blog I have tasked myself with yet another. To get back into consuming a strict diet of horror content this Halloween season I have embarked on a rewatch of eight iconic horror series: Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Conjuring, Halloween, The Purge, Exorcist, Hellraiser, and V/H/S. The list is based on what I want to watch and what is beneficial to watch in light of upcoming new releases like Halloween Ends. I’m calling it the Franchise Marathon: Halloween edition for no other reason than it fits the requirements. First on the docket: Paranormal Activity.
My foundational knowledge of the Paranormal Activity franchise is heavily informed by a documentary that premiered in 2021, Unknown Dimension: The Story of Paranormal Activity directed by Joe Bandelli (IMDb). I thoroughly enjoyed this documentary and highly recommend it to any horror fans or fans of this franchise. A lot of the background information in this review is from that documentary and all credit goes to them. Unknown Dimension explored the origin story of the franchise as well as behind the scenes interviews, footage, and information regarding individual films and the timeline of productions. Two sides of clearly contentious productions shared their perspectives on the franchise from films they helped create and some they seemed to keep at arm’s distance from their reputations. It’s no secret that Paranormal Activity movies had their box office heyday between 2009 and 2012 with the 2012 installment falling short of expectations both in revenue and audience reviews. The fifth and sixth installments left audiences fatigued and confused. By the 2015 release of Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, which promised to be the last installment, most rolled their eyes at the thought of another found footage horror movie hitting theaters.
What I didn’t know is how genius Paranormal Activity is. Back in 2009 I was in middle school and the marketing campaign sucked me in like a moth to a flame. The audience reactions made up the meat of the trailer and the hoax that we had to demand the film come to a theater near us or we would miss out on the scariest movie…ever made up the rest. Obviously those are big shoes to fill and despite it being beautifully genius in hindsight even I found myself mocking how it wasn’t that scary with my other tween friends at the time. Regardless, what the original three, Oren Peli, Katie Featherson, and Micah Sloat, created is amazing. Especially when taking into account the budget of only $15,000 and the filming location being the director’s own home. What came together in those conditions is nothing short of creative mastery of one’s craft from all three. It’s raw, relatable and frightening in the sense that it could happen to you. Of course that’s from me now, me back then thought the last ten minutes were sick and badass but the rest was meh. Not only is it lightning striking that they all met at those moments in their lives to create this movie, it’s also insane how many hurdles this movie had to survive in order to be distributed and actually viewed by audiences (Unknown Dimension).
Unknown Dimension: The Story of Paranormal Activity shares that test screenings caused audiences to leave because it was “too scary” and for Steven Spielberg to bring a copy back in a black bag due to believing it had caused his own paranormal experience. I don’t know about other people but those two things alone would have me salivating to watch a particular horror movie. The fact that this made it onto screens worldwide is a culmination of moving pieces coming together just right. With six follow up films of varying success grossing just shy of $1 billion prior to the 2021 release of Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin, I’d argue this movie is essential to the horror genre's development in the 2000’s. I say this because prior to this the most successful found footage film was The Blair Witch Project which failed to turn itself into a franchise after the second movie flopped…badly. After Paranormal Activity came out and grossed $193.4 million in the box office more and more found footage horror came to be. It nearly drowned out the horror genre in the mid-2010’s causing us to be so accustomed to it that I forgot half of the films were found footage to begin with. Without this movie so many other movies wouldn’t have been made or at the very least would’ve been delayed significantly by the concept not being repeated since its inception. A short list: Hell House LLC, Quarantine, The Visit, REC, The Taking of Deborah Logan, Unfriended, and so on.
Most to Least Favorite:
First - Paranormal Activity (2007)
Second - Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
Third - Next of Kin (2021)
Fourth - The Marked Ones (2014)
Fifth - Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)
Sixth - Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)
Seventh - Ghost Dimension (2015)
This week I re-watched all seven Paranormal Activity films in order of their release dates. My thoughts and opinions on each movie follows including ranking each movie most to least favorite (first place being the film I like the most of the seven and last place being the film I like the least of the seven).
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007) - FIRST PLACE
Unknown Dimension painted a picture I had not been aware of. Katie and Micah, first time actors, and Oren Peli, a first time director came together without any expectations of what a movie should be and broke the mold. Without limitations, or protections, they threw themselves into making a horror film with passion for the craft rather than the accolades. Katie and Micah aren’t only the first names of the actors but also the two lead characters. Most of the movie is set in Peli’s house, set up to be Katie and Micah’s house where paranormal occurrences have begun to happen at their home. Ingenious scares combined with raw talent make this a jump scare buffet. The tension that builds between Katie and Micah as the haunting (add on the real world conditions of long work hours and sleep deprivation) continues is palpable and enhances the fear from the actual scares.
In 2009 I wasn’t old enough to go to horror movies without parental supervision and my parents refused to take me so I bootlegged this film in parts off of various sketchy sites. Even without the theatrical experience I screamed when the handprints appeared, when Katie was dragged from bed, and of course when Micah’s body hurtled towards the camera.This movie is one I re-watch fairly often just to have on in the background and is arguably one of the most iconic horror films of the mid-aughts.
Upon my rewatch I became enamored with the de-evolution of the couple’s relationship and mental well being as the haunt intensified. The ghost expert that comes to their house makes a point of warning them that the entity will feed off of negative energy. This must fall on deaf ears though because the couple becomes increasingly toxic with every incident. Not only does Micah make her question her reality constantly and downplays her fear but he also encourages the worst thing ever which is to stay in the house and try to communicate and taunt the entity. He seems to get joy out of Katie’s fear in the beginning and this resonated with me as an authentic long term couple dynamic. Parallels between the feelings towards the relationship and the haunt can be felt by anyone watching. Towards the end I just wanted one of them, either of them, to leave this dwelling at the very least.
The cliffhanger ending still leaves my jaw on the floor. A seemingly random night for the couple turns into Katie watching Micah sleep, going downstairs only to scream his name, him to chase after her, and then his body to catapult into the camera from the dark hallway, effectively scaring the shit out of anyone watching. The film keeps playing like any found footage would in this case and then we’re informed via title card that Katie did in fact kill Micah and is on the run. That shook me to the core as a tween and I can see why even now. We become close with this couple, we have opinions on them, and want resolution to the issues they’re facing. Then that’s it, they go to bed, shit goes down, and then the movie ends. It feels so unfinished that it feels real, which is some of the charm of the film. Everything is real in the sense that it’s as finished as possible without being studio polished, lending that authenticity to the plot.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 (2010) - SIXTH PLACE
The first Paranormal Activity released in the fall of 2009 to great reception. In order to keep momentum going a second film was set to be released the following year around the same time. This is insane because they didn’t even know what story to tell. In Unknown Dimension: The Story of Paranormal Activity it’s even said that the script changed constantly from day to day and scares were brainstormed on the spot to incorporate the technology available and scenarios where filming would make sense (security footage, handheld cameras, etc.). They had the scares but not the story and the lack of direction is apparent as the movie goes on. What starts fairly normally and is a parallel storyline to the first movie, even featuring Katie and Micah visiting her sister, Kristi, and her family, the main story of the second movie. It follows the same format as the first movie with a reason to film coming about (security cameras in this case) and then increasingly scary moments being captured on film culminating in a final attack that kills some or all of the characters. I will say though if even one of the scares happened to me I’d have been out of that house quick as hell, can’t catch me now demon! In all seriousness (as serious as horror review blogs can be) I don’t hate this movie but I can see why it might’ve disappointed audiences, it’s nothing really new.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 (2011) - SECOND PLACE
This one is one of my favorites and a large part of that has to do with how different it is from the others. The level of creativity in this one is matched with the first movie. A box of tapes is in play, not just any tapes but tapes from 1988 when Katie and Kristi were children living with their mother and her boyfriend, Dennis (RIP Dennis, we stan Dennis here). This film introduces Tobi, an imaginary friend of the kids who’s actually a demon and/or spirit that appears in later films. It also introduces the coven, a group of witches that practice some sort of demonology and convince women to have children, preferably sons, for some unknown means to an end. It’s still not clear to me what this coven aims to accomplish and why they need baby boys to do it or how Katie and Kristi fit into it. I know that their grandmother, Lois, is revealed to be a coven cult member in this movie but not why they need the girls or why the events of the first two movies occur. I suppose part of the scare is not knowing all of the parts but I will critique that all of the pieces don’t add up to one clear story when trying to map out the events of all of the films in the franchise (not easily anyways). I liked Dennis and Julie’s characters a lot and wish they hadn’t been killed outright so we could’ve seen them show up in later films.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 (2012) - FIFTH PLACE
The last peak before the valley, Paranormal Activity 4 is a defining moment for the franchise. Unfortunately, due to what I interpreted as studio exec’s interfering from the doc, the fourth film did not live up to expectations. This film marks a fork in the road where it either continues on this story from the first film that blossomed into a parallel story and a prequel or diverge on a new path and explore what else the franchise can do. Of course the creatives wanted to explore more options but the execs wanted to keep things the same, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I see where both are coming from and while I’d have preferred a hotel paranormal experience to an on the road experience I myself am not totally sold that it would’ve made too much difference. By the fourth film in a franchise I’d expect the world to expand more and to get more insight but Paranormal Activity 4 redoes the same story while feeling directionless. The plot itself is fine, the scares incorporate cool modern tech (anyone else try to see if they lived in a haunted house with those green dot sensors?), and the actors have great chemistry. The pacing of the story is good and makes sense, we also get to see what Katie has been up to (stealing more children it seems). Her “son” Robbie is weird and starts to hang around the family, making Alex upset due to the weird paranormal occurrences. It’s only boring in the context of the franchise. As a whole body of work it feels like a filler chapter to reach a word count rather than a fully fleshed out story that adds to the overarching story. We don’t really learn anything worth knowing that’s new and I only cared about the two main characters (Alex and Ben) and could’ve gone without anyone else in the family. The Katie Hail Mary is fine and I love the actress and character but it would’ve been nice to have something fresh. It makes sense that after this film the franchise had to rethink their direction.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES (2014) - FOURTH PLACE
According to Unknown Dimension: The Story of Paranormal Activity the reason it features the Latinx community is they made the most money from those demographics and audiences. While that makes sense from a business standpoint it is a missed opportunity to have let Latinx directors, producers, and crew make a horror movie under the Paranormal Activity umbrella rather than try to make a big buck. It would have been cool to focus on what story they wanted to tell and that would've been pioneering like the initial brand.
Back to the review: the actors have such good chemistry I’m shocked they aren’t actually lifelong friends, the setting is completely different from previous films (bless), and the well-crafted scares are creative. All of this said, I prefer the alternate ending in the chapel that allows for Jesse to potentially be saved rather than it ending up in the same damn coven and not even being a spin-off but just another installment! That confused the shit out of me the first time I watched it and even now re-watching it I had to pause to rant about how weird that was.
Hector, Marisol, and Irma racing against time to save Jesse from full demonic possession captured my full attention. I loved that it started with him taking advantage of his "powers" and seeing it as a gift only for it to reveal itself to be a curse and you a vessel. I had full interest in seeing this story in this timeline to it's completion, even if that meant one or two characters died trying to save the day. The movie did fine on it’s own without backtracking to the tired and spent narrative from the first four films, sure make the story or demon rather Paranormal Activity coven adjacent but not literally travel back in time to the fucking night Katie disappears.
On the one hand it is cool to get more insight into what happened that night after the cliffhanger that is the ending of the first movie but it came out of left field. Like we can time travel now? What can’t this coven do? If this coven has this level of ability and control over some sort of demon realm like they’ve portrayed with the lack of direction across the franchise then why the fuck haven’t they taken over the world yet? What the heck do they want to accomplish?! Not every adoptee can be a marked one who is meant to become a demon guard dog for a cult of white women. The actors carry the film and my love for them makes me like this story but I’m side-eyeing the producers and execs on this one’s ending.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: GHOST DIMENSION (2015) - SEVENTH PLACE
This one hits different but not in a good way. It's not a horrible movie on it's own but yet again when held up to the franchise it falls short of the mark. This one felt the least like a Paranormal Activity movie and fell into the style of the other popular found footage horror movies rather than continuing on being a pioneer in the genre. It felt like a cash grab and an easy thing to market due to it being advertised as the last one ever. The movie to wrap up the story, answer all of the questions, and bookend the series. Instead it became convoluted and frustrating. I spent more time piecing together the fragmented and ever changing storyline than I did paying attention to the details of Ghost Dimension. As if that isn't disappointing enough it's 3D which is never a good sign in a horror franchise, it might as well be the kiss of sellout death for that era. I could mostly tell when a call-back to a previous films plot point occurred but even after watching them in quick succession I couldn't remember what they were calling back to. It's the least authentic feeling of the series and feels like the studio's vision for the project's end rather than the creatives that extracted the lore from ghost stories and set ideas.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: NEXT OF KIN (2021) - THIRD PLACE
I’ll keep this one short because less than a year ago I reviewed this movie on its own and not much changed my opinion in my re-watch. I still find this movie enjoyable to watch, and it leaves me excited to see what’s next in the franchise now that another film has been announced. I’m still pissed that the unlikable main character released a demon onto this plane of existence over a 23 and Me test but we’ll see how things go in the next installment.
POST MARATHON THOUGHTS & KEY TAKEAWAYS
Paranormal Activity is a personal favorite that is nostalgic and a good rewatch. I’m glad I kicked off the Halloween edition of the Franchise Marathon with a franchise that has good feels and also grateful I watched the documentary (please go watch it on Paramount+ it's an entertaining doc). It also moved up a few spots in my personal horror hall of fame. Overall I would recommend watching my top four of the series an 8 out of 10 and would recommend my bottom four a 3 out of 10. Not sure what franchise is up next but I'm thinking it'll be between The Purge and Hellraiser depending on how the week goes.