Return to Paranormalcy
by David Bordwell
Observations on Film Art
The broad task that Peli faced when he began work on Paranormal Activity was clear: How to make a diabolic-possession film different from the others? By then, and still, that variant of horror was pretty well-defined. And indeed the film Peli came up with wasn’t that original in outline. A couple is disturbed by mysterious noises and actions in their house. They call in experts and try to find the source of the disturbance. Eventually the woman becomes possessed and kills her lover.
Throughout, the conventions of the supernatural film rule: sudden blackouts, bone-shaking noises emitted by offscreen fiends, and characters exploring basements, closets, moonlit yards, and other scary spaces. Special effects are invoked to levitate victims or drag them by unseen hands. Occasionally we’re faked out by scares launched as pranks that some characters pull on others. As usual, normal, i.e. bourgeois American life, is devastated by supernatural forces. Cozy domestic surroundings, including an array of consumer goods, become menacing. Much of all this was pioneered by The Exorcist (1973), so the tradition has plenty of cobwebs on it.
Shooting in seven days on a small budget, Peli settled on a formal framework that borrowed from another tradition, that of the pseudo-documentary fiction film. This too goes far back, to This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and Bob Roberts (1992), and before to Stanton Kaye’s Georg (1964), Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary (1967), and Mitchell Block’s No Lies (1972) , and Peter Watkins’ Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965). More distant predecessors might be Welles’ 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, or even the fake memoirs we find in the early years of the novel. Today the pseudo-documentary mode, used for comic or dramatic purposes, is familiar to us from television shows like The Office. This mode has its own conventions, such as to-camera interviews and the occasionally awkward framing, most noticeable in the recurring image of a fallen camera.
The pseudo-documentary approach had been tried in the horror film in the 1980s, but it gained attention at the end of the 1990s with The Last Broadcast (1998) and The Blair Witch Project (1999). No surprise: Horror films tend to be low-budget items, and shooting in a run-and-gun manner, with handheld shots and awkward sound, was both cheap and realistic-looking. A cycle emerged, exemplified most notably in the bigger-budget Cloverfield (2008).
The problem of the pseudo-documentary is to motivate the fact that someone is filming these dramas. Various solutions have been worked out. You might make the protagonist a filmmaker exploring a subject or creating a diary. Or you can pretend that the people being filmed are celebrities (as in Spinal Tap). Or make the act of filming an effort to document dramatic occurrences. Filmmakers face a second problem as well: motivating how the film has been made public. You can, for instance, present it as a TV or theatrical documentary, as Spinal Tap purports to be. More recently another solution has been found. You can suggest that this film has been discovered after the events were over.
Because of this rationale, the approach is sometimes called the “found-footage” treatment, or in Varietyese the “faux found-footage film.” I’m not delighted by this term because for a long time “found-footage” has referred to films like Bruce Conner’s A Movie or Christian Marclay’s The Clock, assembled out of existing footage scavenged from different sources. So I’ll call fictional movies like Blair Witch and Cloverfield “discovered footage” films.
One reason for this name is that these films hark back to an early tradition of literary fiction, that of the “topos of the discovered manuscript” or “the old oak chest.” Here a tale is presented as a manuscript found and prepared for publication by other hands. The purpose, at first blush, is to give the story an air of authenticity. The same urge prevails in the discovered-footage horror movies, which use this blatant artifice to play with the possibility that these weird happenings really took place. As the image surmounting this blog entry suggests, Peli linked his film to this tradition, even letting the all-too-real company Paramount Pictures attest to the veracity of what we’re going to see.
The development of the Paranormal series took place under the sign of rivalry. A great many horror films of the late 2000s and early 2010s used the pseudo-documentary approach, sometimes marking the footage as recovered. After the success of Peli’s original film, intense competition emerged. There was a blatant ripoff (Paranormal Entity, 2009), followed by many others, including the subtler pseudo-doc The Last Exorcism (2010), which seems to presume that we’ll take it as a found-footage item too.
Just as important, in making successors to the original film, Peli and his colleagues had to compete with themselves. So they freshened up their plots. Paranormal 2 features not a live-in couple but a family; Paranormal 3 centers on an unmarried mother, her live-in boyfriend, and her two daughters. Paranormal 4 features a family whose neighbors are a possessed mother and son.
Interestingly, the subsequent films supply relatively little mythical or doctrinal backstory. Although there are always one or two scenes in which the characters launch on some research, the plots mostly minimize exposition about the hows and whys of possession. (Contrast The Exorcist.) We get just enough hints to assume that there’s a demon who offers women worldly goods in exchange for innocent boys’ souls. Mostly the films concentrate on the characters’ responses, chiefly their quarrels about whether the weird happenings are supernaturally caused. Each film needs at least one blocking character, somebody whose skepticism, obstinacy, or cluelessness keeps the plot going and prevents the characters from simply getting the hell out.
The films also vary protagonists and the characters we’re attached to. Micah moves the plot forward in the first entry with his urge to document the weird happenings, while in the second, the father Daniel and his daughter Ali take turns probing what’s going on. In the third film, again it’s mostly a male filmmaker, Dennis, who propels the inquiry, while in the latest iteration, the narrative momentum is passed to the inquisitive teenage girl Alex.
Perhaps the most up- to-date way the filmmakers refresh the franchise is by making the various films interlock. The films set up a chronology that positions the original release as the third phase of a larger action. Paranormal 2 occurs just before the events of the first one, and Paranormal 3 flashes back eighteen years to supply some preconditions for the previous entries. Moreover, some portions of the plots overlap, so that scenes from one installment are replayed in another, explaining how the time frames mesh. This sort of shuffling with time and perspective is nowadays common both within films and across them; the second and third Bourne films offer good examples.
Above all, the filmmakers have created a new ecological niche by virtue of some initial stylistic choices Peli’s first film made. They were striking but exceptionally constraining. To produce more Paranormal films created a very specific set of problems: How to respect those initial constraints and yet rework them in unpredictable ways?
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