In what is becoming a Halloween holiday tradition Paramount unveils their third incarnation of the low-frill, high thrill found-footage franchise of home-grown nebulous specters. Considering the limited set pieces and the tiny budgets you would expect this enterprise to quickly lose its impact and become tiresome. For this iteration we are presented something of an origin story for the series’ events, and if we are not given a full explanation of things (as well as additional questions left unanswered) it is a satisfactory exploration.
I saw the original back in 2007 – twice. I was cajoled into going each time and while I could see and appreciate what the film makers Jason Blum and Oren Peli crafted, overall I was underwhelmed. The paucity of action and the constricted setting were evident of the lack of budget. The pacing was glacial and most of the thrills came by way of deliberate build ups – it was less horror than tension.
However both viewings were made with inexperienced teens and each time I looked over to see youths riveted and genuinely shaken. That’s when appreciation crept in. The filmmakers employed the basics of terror cinema – implied tension, judicious use of music to set the mood, and showing less to permit the viewer to fill in the blanks and essentially scare themselves in the process. Today’s youth have been marinated in sanguinary visuals, amped up violence that dulls the senses, and becoming so inured to the displays that feelings of dread have supplanted terror. Often this is what passes for contemporary horror.
What “PA1” managed to bring to the table was a dedication to the basics. Instead of vivisected bodies and blood delivered by tanker trucks to the set it gave us ill-defined noises and a swaying chandelier. Now Blum and Peli are on board again, this time as producers, turning over the direction to the duo of Henry Joost, and Ariel Schuman, the pair behind the controversial documentary “Catfish”. They manage to both maintain the tradition while expanding on it, by rote and need. There is more to jar your nerves, as they dispense with those extended passages of inactivity. Now this also means they resort to some of the contrived conventional jump-frights, those staples of many horror releases that are less terrifying than nerve jangling. But in this instance it is not a cheap way of toying with the audience, it is a method to deliver more as things unspool.
The movie begins with series regular Katie Featherston, again playing the original haunted female lead. As Katie she arrives at the home of her sister Krisiti, bringing with her a few boxes loaded with ancient VHS home movies. These are stored in the garage and soon the family discovers the garage ransacked, the only thing missing being those boxes. Next we flashback to Katie’s and Krisiti’s childhood, spent in a home of similar comfort to those previous in the series. They live with their mother and her live-boyfriend Dennis, who owns a wedding video business. He has set up his editing suite in the garage and then this provides the impetus for more intimate camerawork. The family experiences more mysterious noises and Dennis decides to use numerous cameras to ferret out the source. The younger sister exhibits curious behavior that becomes the foundation of the previous two versions. We even see the staging of the pivotal photograph from the first film.
In many ways you could consider this to be “Paradoxical Activity”. For one, the franchise has been built on microscopic budgets and this one sports the heftiest, coming in at a still modest $5 million. As a result while we get footage supposedly shot on old school tape we get some of the sharpest visuals so far. Finally, while we get those jump scares we also are delivered true jolts that are among the best in the series. This happens because those fake-outs are used not as cheap stunts but as set-ups. After a while you come to expect them and then craftily the directors do not deliver. This is the touch of Blum and Peli, as it ramps up the tension – something younger audiences trained on the predictable beats of contemporary horror are likely to feel. And when the genuine scares arrive there are quick cutaways – no lingering shots over the payoff like in the usual torture porn; these are hit-and-run moments that come quick and then leave you as fast.
Admittedly this is a limited format, and some may tire of the usual drawn out set ups, but what you see delivered is an actual craft. From the standpoint of horror what you watch is the effective use of fundamentals. This is a bloodless franchise and yet they manage to evoke more from audiences than those films relying on blatant acts of carnage, and that is entirely due to reliance on the fundamentals. Instead of becoming tired and worn out they are still finding ways to get into the minds of the audience.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars