Paranormal Activity 4: Diary of a Horror Film Wuss
Night #1, 3:13am, Austin, Texas
I can’t sleep, because I just heard a click. An innocent, nothing click? More than likely. But to me right now, it sounded like a front door click. A demon-ghost-trying-to-open-the-front-door-of-my-hotel-room type click. A moment later, the air conditioner whirs on, and I almost jump out of my skin. Normally these noises wouldn’t bother me. But I’ve just seen the first screening of “Paranormal Activity 4” at Fantastic Fest, and am now convinced the events in the film will all happen to me.
The first “Paranormal Activity” was a surprise hit when it was released in 2009, and since then, the two sequels have scared the pants off audiences, Though hopefully not literally. The original paved the way for ‘found footage’ horror films; this style cleverly uses hand-held domestic cameras to feel more realistic, with the added bonus of keeping costs down. To date, the three films have grossed a combined $577 million worldwide, with a budget of about $8 million.
Not bad, I think, so if I could just put this overactive brain to good use, I could probably write a terrifying and profitable horror film.
I must have slept, though it doesn’t feel like it, and there’s that damn click again. Lying awake, I don’t dare to look around me in case Katie, the possessed subject of the films, is standing there staring at me. You know how she likes to do that. In a feeble attempt to shut off my mind, I turn the TV on and let images of the kids from “Jersey Shore” dancing to Enrique Iglesias wash over me. But The Situation isn’t going to help this situation; my brain won’t be stopped from replaying the movie.
In the forth film it’s now 2011, where Katie and her “son” Robbie (Brady Allen) are living across the road from a young family. The daughter Alice (Kathryn Newton) and her boyfriend Alex (Matt Shively) are creeped out by Robbie, especially when he comes to live with them after Katie goes to hospital. Robbie forms a friendship with the family’s young son Wyatt, and also enjoys walking around the house at two in the morning talking to his “invisible friend”. When strange events start occurring in the house, and the parents refuse to believe them, Alice and Alex decide to start filming using multiple computers. And I think you know what happens next.
My alarm jolts me out of a half sleep, and through bleary eyes I see that the TV and lights are still on. I appear to be intact, though my appearance in the mirror suggests otherwise. Hair everywhere, eye makeup smeared down my face, bloodshot eyes… if that’s not a picture of evil, I don’t know what is.
Looking slightly less demonic and clutching a cup of coffee, I wait at a nearby hotel to meet Katie Featherston, the star of the series. In the films, she’s terrifying, but face-to-face, luckily she’s anything but. “I’m sorry!” she laughs, as I point to my eye bags. “It is really fun to walk on set and scare people and then to see it on the screen and have people react to in such a huge way, it’s like, ‘it’s just me!’ But if you are scared that is awesome!”
I tell Katie how the scariest moment for me during the film was when I ran to the bathroom, turned the corner and… she was standing there. Huddled in the hallway, Katie was seeing the almost completed film for the first time. “Watching the audience,” she admits, “that’s the real show. In the sequels there are still some surprises for me because I’m not in every scene, and I don’t know how it’s going to play out, so I enjoy that. But even more than that, I love seeing what people are going to respond to. Every audience is different but there’s always energy in the crowd, it binds everyone together like, ‘we’re all in this until the end, we can get through this.’ It’s fun to be involved in a movie that gets under people’s skin like that.”
Throughout the franchise one of the trickier aspects of creating the stories has been figuring out how to incorporate the found footage style in a way that makes sense. In the fourth film, there’s a lot of Skyping, and even the use of an Xbox Kinect. “It’s sometimes a troubling problem to have and sometimes a fun problem to have. The third one was set in the 80’s, so they were limited as to how they could tell the story and be true to the time period. So I know (directors) Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman were really excited that this one was more present day, because there’s so much more you can do which makes sense. Teenagers Skype all the time, I Skype all the time and I’m 29! You have to do it in the right way that makes sense but you have to keep it interesting.”
I used to Skype, I tell her… but maybe not now. This film has ruined that for me… and baths… and little kids in general. Shudder.
A long-time horror fan, Katie admits that when she was young, she played a prank on her friend while they were watching “Candyman”. I ask whether these days she’s ever tempted to stand over someone’s bed and rock back and forth, like she does in “Paranormal Activity”. “No!” she laughs, “I haven’t done that. My cousin and her husband came to stay with me once, they’re both terrified by the films, and another family member said ‘you should do it’ but I thought ‘they’re houseguests, this is normal life, I’m not going to torture them.’ I try to be sweet in normal life so I can save all the scares for the movie.”
As to what she hopes audiences get out of “Paranormal Activity 4” besides scares, Katie says, “I hope people continue to be excited by it. Everyone works really hard to tell a story that makes sense and is true to the original but lets the world get a little bit bigger. I hope people are asking questions and wanting to know the answers to things that are brought up in the fourth one. But most of all I want people to have a good time.”
And it’s just a movie, right? I ask, hopefully, in a last attempt to shake off my fears. “It’s just a movie!” She laughs. “Remind yourself of that when you go home tonight!”
Ok then, I think, waving Katie farewell, it is just a movie. Bedtime, here I come!
Night #2, 2:43am, Los Angeles, California