One of my really good friends insists that I go see Paranormal Activity 4 with him. We’ve seen the first three together, so he’s calling it a tradition.
I hate our tradition. I’m horrible in horror films: I get really jumpy, I scream and I yell. I’m that girl who can’t keep her sh-t together. It’s embarrassing, and I know this will be the case when I see the fourth Paranormal installment.
Still, I can’t help but be a little pissed. If I’m going to be scared, I want it to be done right. The Paranormal series is not the answer to that plea. The found footage here feels tired and redundant as it’s going into its fourth edition, making me wonder if found footage is a lost cinematic device or if it just isn’t working for Paranormal anymore.
Backtrack: Let’s first clarify what found footage is. Found footage uses film “shot” by characters to make the story seem more realistic. These films are often made to look like home video, implying that what they’re shooting is real and could actually happen. This proves especially useful in horror films trying to convince the audience that hauntings and demons and ghosts (oh my!) actually exist. Oftentimes, the “filmmaker” is dead or missing by the end, the footage being all that’s left.
The genre was largely popularized with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project (although found footage has at least been around since 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust — a real film, I swear). Since Blair Witch’s release, there has been an explosion of horror films using found footage: August Underground, Alone with Her, Cloverfield and Quarantine, to name a few.
The two cases that I find most interesting and relevant are the Paranormal series and — though not a horror film — the current release End of Watch. The films are incredibly different in their use of found footage, and it’s these differences that illustrate what works and what doesn’t with the technique.
The Paranormal series follows a simple premise: Freaky events have been going on in a house and a character sets up cameras to document them. The film takes the viewer through night one, night two, night three — sometimes skipping a few days and often using time-lapse — to spook the viewer through realism.
The first go-round was a surprising smash-hit. The setup — documenting the freaky events that escalate with each night — was a new and interesting concept back in 2007. Five years later, with Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Paranormal Activity 4 hitting theaters, we get it already.
The whole premise feels like a gimmick at this point. We’ll see a character explaining why they’re shooting (unexplained events, potential robbers, home videos) and we know what we’re in for. The fourth film, featuring a girl on video chat, feels like a good idea that’s been done to death. The series is simply repeating a tactic that worked before, but doesn’t anymore.
This does not mean, however, that the technique as a whole is a gimmick. When used organically, found footage enhances a film and makes it feel more realistic, as in the case of David Ayer’s End of Watch.
The film follows two South Los Angeles cops on patrol, Brian (Jake Gyllenhall) and Mike (Michael Peña). Brian studies law in his free time and has to take an art credit to fulfill his requirements. He decides to take filmmaking — a detail that is mentioned in passing and not blatantly set up — so he and his partner wear cameras on their uniform while on the job.
The film cuts between Brian and Mike’s footage, tapes from the cop car and a good number of shots from the real filmmakers. End of Watch weaves these shots together organically. It has a realistic look, but still tells a cohesive story without feeling repetitive, making the cop drama feel all the more authentic. And because it steps away from the horror genre that largely popularized the cinematic device, its approach to found footage feels all the more fresh and exciting.
By making his film look real, Ayer wants you to believe that this is really what patrol is like — though the banter between officers does help. In the same vein, the Paranormal series tries to convince the audience that demons and hauntings really do exist by filming scenes realistically. Both have the look, but the prior works organically, and the latter feels like a blatant set up.
End of Watch demonstrates that found footage can be applied to other genres, rejuvenating the realistic-looking approach within a new context, but this does not mean that horror film has lost hope. The Paranormal franchise doesn’t work because the idea has been worn out within these specific films.
A film like Sinister, by contrast, incorporates home video in moderation. Sinister doesn’t rely on the technique, but instead uses found footage when it can scare most effectively. I haven’t seen the film personally, but I’ve seen the red band trailer and to say that alone is terrifying would be an understatement.
Found footage works best when applied to fresh ideas, whether with different genres or something that hasn’t been done before.
The idea is rather simple: Found footage is only a gimmick when it’s exploited. When used organically, it can be a great tool to lend an air of realism.
End of Watch delivers a fresh approach to found footage. Horror films can still use the genre too, but — it can’t be said enough — it needs to feel organic.
So please, no more Paranormal Activity installments. I don’t want my friend to drag me to the fifth, sixth and seventh films. If you can’t deliver the scares, fine by me, but at least deliver the thrills. Tapping into genres other than horror might just be the way to do that.
C. Molly Smith is a junior majoring in communication. Her column “Keepin’ it Reel” runs Wednesdays.