Paranormal Activity: Ranking the Found-Footage Franchise

Cannibal Holocaust introduced grindhouse fans to the found-footage format. Two decades later, The Blair Witch Project took the format mainstream with its pre-viral marketing campaign and pseudo-documentary approach. A handful of found-footage horror films would surface in the early 2000’s. Yet Paranormal Activity was the true follow-up box office hit that cemented the found-footage approach as a legitimate horror sub-genre.

For several successive Halloween seasons, the Saw franchise dominated horror with each new instalment. Writer and director Oren Peli’s little found-footage film dethroned Jigsaw in 2007 with a brilliant marketing campaign that rivalled Blair Witch Project. From that point onwards, Paranormal Activity became the new ‘King of Halloween.’ The low-budget series was box office gold for Paramount Studios. But with six films in the franchise, the quality wasn’t always quite as golden. Which of The Paranormal Activity movies are worth your time?

Paranormal Activity 4

Paranormal Activity 4 is the point in the franchise where the ‘law of diminishing’ returns hit hard. The box office decline was steep. Despite the obvious grand (and growing) plans for the franchise, this was the instalment that tanked the series. Each successive sequel took home roughly half in total box office receipts.

Make a list of every problem that inevitably arise with successive horror sequels. Now play this movie and watch in horror as it lazily checks off every box. If you were hoping for a sequel that would explore what happened to Katie and nephew Hunter, forget about it. Paranormal Activity 4 is basically a 90-minute commercial for the next two films in the series. Little happens for the first hour and 20 minutes.

Paranormal Activity 4 is basically a 90-minute commercial for the next two films in the series.

Aside from a clever scene with a kitchen knife and a cheap gimmick involving Xbox Kinect, Paranormal Activity 4 lets its narrative sit in a holding pattern. While it’s final 10 minutes scare up some fun tension, the conclusion is like an ‘80’s television cliffhanger. Frankly, this sequel isn’t just bad, it’s insulting.

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension

To be honest, it’s probably a toss-up between The Ghost Dimension and Paranormal Activity for worst film in the series. At least this sequel makes an effort to introduce some narrative momentum. Unfortunately, The Ghost Dimension is weighed down by too may problems to make it worth watching. By this point, the franchise’s mythology was so convoluted as to be almost incomprehensible. The addition of ‘time travel’ and a ‘ghost dimension’ evokes a ‘kitchen sink’ feeling to the series.

In addition, The Ghost Dimension was clearly out of ideas. The sequel has no new fun and innovative scares. It’s the sixth film in the franchise and you’ve seen it all before. The few new ideas introduced, including a tricked-out camera, are more likely to induce eye-rolling than jumps. The sequel’s resolution to the series is not only disappointing but introduces several glaring plot holes. The writers couldn’t even come up with a better name for its demon than ‘Toby’.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

Arguably, The Marked Ones was a much better movie than it had any right to be. It’s the fifth film in the series, and the story initially takes you away from the series’ overall narrative. Most viewers wanted some resolution to Katie and Hunter’s saga. Instead, The Marked Ones gave us an entirely new set of characters in what amounted to a side story.

Nonetheless, The Marked Ones manages to deliver just enough scares to compensate for all of its weaknesses. The biggest problem for The Paranormal Activity franchise by its fourth film was the scope of the story it was trying to tell. Found-footage films work best with simple, stripped down concepts.

Paranormal Activity 3

Essentially an origin film, Paranormal Activity 3 is the last good film of the series. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman tell the story only hinted at in the first two movies. This time around, Paranormal Activity 3 shows us ‘Toby’s’ original haunting of sisters Katie and Kristi. Set in the late 1980’s, ‘stepdad’ Dennis is the latest guy obsessed with capturing supernatural phenomenon.

Scares are much more liberally parcelled out in this sequel.

Surprisingly, Paranormal Activity 3 proved that the series still had some life left in it. In fact, Joost and Schulman arguably delivered the best paced Paranormal Activity film. Scares are much more liberally parcelled out in this sequel. There’s also some wonderful inventiveness on display. A camera mounted to an oscillating fan offers one of the best scares in the franchise. We probably get a few too many additions to the series’ overarching mythology, but Paranormal Activity 3 is too much fun to complain. If the series had ended here, we would have had a pretty decent horror trilogy.

Paranormal Activity

I’m going to court controversy and go with my heart on these final two placements. Paranormal Activity is an excellent found-footage horror film. It studiously follows the playbook that The Blair Witch Project wrote years earlier. This is a found-footage ‘slow burn’ with each successive night delivering increasing threats and tension. Series creator Oren Peli understood what makes found-footage horror work. As a result, he gives us under-stated horror that could almost convince you this really happened. Katie being pulled from her bed by an unseen entity still terrifies. If the original film has one major problem, it’s that it may be a little too lackadaisical with its pacing.

Paranormal Activity 2

Yes, I think Paranormal Activity 2 is the best film in the series. To a large extent, the first sequel suffers from the same pacing problems. Director Tod Williams takes his time, but the end destination makes it worthwhile. Family home security cameras allow for much more elaborately staged scares. Like the first movie, the quiet build-up becomes increasingly unbearable. Where Paranormal Activity 2 stands out is with its suspenseful final act. Intermittent reinforcement forces you to watch the screen intently to pick up where the next scares is likely to emerge. In addition to its genuine frights, Paranormal Activity 2 opens up the series’ world in a simple way. I’ve watched this sequel a few times and, of all the series entries, it holds up the best.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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