Nothing Ever Happens On The First Night: Ranking The 'Paranormal Activity' Films

This will not be a defense of the Paranormal Activity series.

You either like these movies or you don't. You either appreciate their charms or you find them dreadfully boring. You either dig their slow-burning tension or you hate their reliance on jump scares. You either respect their commitment to an increasingly overblown and confusing mythology or you tuned out two movies ago. I have no intention of convincing you that these movies are worth your time if you have already decided that they are not for you. But if you like them... Hi! Welcome to the club.

With the sixth and supposedly final film in the series, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, in theaters now, I am going to rank all six of these movies. Because even though this series has burned me and angered me and driven me up a wall built out of my own frustrations, I genuinely like two thirds of these films. But which two thirds? Well, feel free to read on, if you dare.

A special note: This list is 100% accurate and not up for debate. Sorry.

6. Paranormal Activity 4

For whatever reason, the odd-numbered Paranormal Activity films tend to represent the best in the franchise, almost as if they're reacting to failures of their predecessor and adjusting course. No even-numbered film in the series demands a course correction quite like Paranormal Activity 4, which represents the absolute nadir of the series. It embodies every complaint everyone has ever had about the rest of the Paranormal Activity movies and amplifies them. This thing is slow and obnoxious and stilted and boring and painfully anti-climactic.

Paranormal Activity 4 feels desperate. It feels desperate in how it shifts its focus to trying-too-hard-to-be-hip teenage leads who never once deserve our investment. It feels desperate in how it utilizes the Kinect of all things to provide a new angle from which to view the action. There is a dearth of ideas on display here, and for a series that is dependent entirely on setting up and paying off gags that get the audience screaming at the screen, that's death. In a series defined by its sudden, deliberately inconclusive endings, Paranormal Activity 4 is the only film that ends with a genuine cop-out. It's not as insulting as The Devil Inside (the found footage horror movie that had the audacity to end with a goddamn YouTube link), but it's close.

And unlike some of the other lesser entries, part four feels like its treading water, adding little to the mythology. What is here doesn't pay off until part six and even then that feels more like damage control than an actual plan. Every horror franchise reaches a point where it starts to coast. It happened to Friday the 13th with part seven, A Nightmare on Elm Street with part five, and Saw with part four. Thankfully, like those series, Paranormal Activity did find just enough juice to stage a comeback.

5. Paranormal Activity 2

The second entry in the series lacks the sense of intimate terror that made the first one such a memorably unnerving experience, but as a collection of decent scares, it's fine. It's okay. It gets the job done. It's barely a movie, but when viewed with a large, hyped-up crowd, it's more than enough to get your blood pumping.

The big problem is that it takes forever to find its gear, and without the raw energy of an audience on opening weekend to help it along, the movie has to limp to get to the good stuff. All of the movies in the Paranormal Activity are dependent on the right mixture of people in the theater (or the right cocktail of friend in the living room) to be fully effective, but this one lives and dies by the patience and enthusiasm everyone brings to it. You have to constantly forgive the movie, to accept that it's going to take its sweet time while never being as interesting as the first movie, and that's a lot to ask. It's probably too much to ask of anyone who doesn't want to go out of their way to embrace these things.

But the stuff that is good tends to be really good. This is the film that decided to take the series in a serialized, time-jumping, soap-opera-complex direction and the results are intriguing. Knowing that the bulk of the film takes place before the events of part one, and knowing the events of this film lead to the terror thrust upon our original heroes, gives this otherwise limp movie an edge. Right now, Paranormal Activity 2 is more noteworthy for its contributions to the series mythology than it is for doing anything especially interesting in its filmmaking. It leans on what was established to part one to diminishing returns.

Plus, any movie talks manages to milk a pool cleaner for scares deserves at least some respect.

4. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension

The best of the even-numbered Paranormal Activity movies is a mixed bag from frame one. For the grand finale, everyone decided to throw every rule out the window, taking the series into uncharted territory that is simultaneously exciting and baffling. It's a classic example of the reach exceeding the grasp. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension doesn't have the budget to pull off its grandest ideas, but at least those ideas are totally nuts. It doesn't have characters strong or likable enough to justify its rapid pace, but at least this thing hits the ground running and never lets up.

This is the fastest paced film in the series, thanks to its characters discovering a customized camera that allows its user to actually see the demonic activity that is plaguing them on a nightly basis. That means that the nights that would be typically spent building tension and dread with long, lingering shots of nothing happening at all are now full of special effects. Watching a demon form itself out of shadows and stand at the foot of a kid's bed and just watch is creepy stuff, even when the CGI leaves much to be desired.

However, this makes every single character in this movie look like an absolute idiot. Unlike the characters in the rest of the series, who can only suspect that something horrible is going on in their home, these people have visual proof that a monstrous demon that goes by Toby is using their house as a playground. It's frustrating to watch these characters refuse to react to this proof that they're being haunted and not flee their home after night two. Everyone sticks around because the plot demands it. Everyone is an idiot because the storytelling needs them to be dummies who don't know better than to flee a haunted house.

Still, there's good stuff to be found here. The hyper-competent (if sadly underutilized) priest who shows up to diagnose the problem is terrific. The additions to the mythology, building off the truly insane revelations of the previous film, are delightful. The conclusion may be typically vague, but every loose end in the entire series is touched upon, if not tied into a little bow.

3. Paranormal Activity 3

One of the great ongoing problems with the found footage aesthetic is defined by one simple question: why are these people filming this? This is the query that plagues every moment of Paranormal Activity 3. The first film opens after its characters have decided to begun filming the weird occurrences around their home. The later films center on young people who always have their phones out anyway. But this one is set in the '80s and it asks us to suspend our disbelief and roll with the idea that the main characters are lugging a massive, old-school video camera around the house at all times. It becomes especially hard to believe during the climax, where characters are lugging around that camera and a few unconscious children.

But who cares? Paranormal Activity 3 wins you over fast enough that you stop questioning its broken internal logic and just start accepting it as the first-person funhouse of terror that it is. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are pranksters at heart and their scares are built like elaborate jokes. The set-ups are meticulous and the punchlines, even when you can see them coming, are so clever that you can't help but give in and scream. Everyone talks about the scene where the camera is mounted on a rotating fan and for good reason – no single scare in all of Paranormal Activity is so satisfying, so agonizing.

Paranormal Activity is the most energetic and fun film of the series. It's probably the one that holds up the most to repeat viewings and one of the only films of its kind to actually showcase the voice of its directors. It's shocking that Joost and Schulman also helmed the creatively anemic Paranormal Activity 4. This movie sets out to gleefully entertain and scare at every opportunity. It's relentless.

And this is where the nitpick comes into play – the focus on making individual scenes great causes the whole to suffer just a little. There are moments in Paranormal Activity 3 that represent a series high, but there are other movies that function as more well-rounded, narratively satisfying experiences. It's a collection of borderline-masterful horror gags in search of a proper story.

2. Paranormal Activity

One of my most vivid theater-going memories revolves around the first Paranormal Activity. Late in the film, when we return to that now-famous wide shot of the bedroom and the text on the screen tells us with night we're on, the girl two seats down from me broke into tears. "I can't do this," she muttered to her friends as she rushed out of the theater. A colorful anecdote does not a good movie make, but this does speak to the raw, intimate power of the first film in this series. Before it got wrapped up in its own complex mythology, this was the small-scale story of a couple whose lives are invaded and whose relationship was given the ultimate test. The rest of the movies in the series can be frightening, but this is the only one that really focuses on the emotional violation of demonic possession.

The slow, deliberate pace and repetitiveness of the film ultimately works in its favor. The escalation of supernatural occurrences is slow and steady. What at first looks like a fairly innocuous ghost soon becomes something far more threatening, but it's too late to do anything about it. Like the characters on screen, the movie has lulled us into complacency. So many of the "nights," each of them helpfully labeled, consist of nothing happening, which somehow makes it feel worse. Once it becomes obvious that these are the scenes where things will go wrong, where things will jump out and yell "Boo," we tense up. Just seeing that wide shot of the bed becomes unsettling. The movie waits you out. It knows what you're expecting and it takes its sweet time getting there. Like the characters on screen, you don't want to be toyed with, but that doesn't stop the movie from wrapping itself around your brain and sinking its claws into your psyche.

It's a shame that director Oren Peli failed to capture this powerful sense of dread in his follow-up projects (Area 51, woof) because this remains the most unique and captivating use of found footage since The Blair Witch Project. Unlike other movies shot in this style, including most of the movies in this series, you never question the logic of the film's presentation. It genuinely feels like footage cobbled together from a doomed couple. You never ask why everyone is filming. The movie is built to occur within this structure, the structure isn't forced upon the movie. That makes all the difference in the world.

1. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

It's a shame that so many people skipped Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones because they felt so rightfully burnt by Paranormal Activity 4. Against all odds, the fifth film in this franchise is a breath of fresh air that may very well be the best movie in the entire series. It's certainly my personal favorite of the bunch.

Here's what makes The Marked Ones so singular in this series: it's the only movie to not star a bunch of rich white people living in a massively expensive house. That may seem like a flippant observation, but it's true and it makes the fifth film in the series something genuinely special. This isn't a movie about well-off families being tormented by demons while their security systems and laptop camera pick up the action – this is a movie about inner-city Latino kids being plunged into a nightmare and knowing that they're on their own. The shift in location and the viewpoint of a different culture informs everything about The Marked Ones. Rather than sit on their butts and let themselves get haunted, these kids go out of their way to tackle the problem and save their demon-infested buddy. Their colorful neighborhood couldn't be more different than the sterile suburbia of other films and it's a breath of fresh air.

Several of the other Paranormal Activity movies feature handy priests who show up to offer exposition and guidance, but The Marked Ones is the only one that feels like it was truly injected with Catholic dread. It's not The Exorcist, but the beliefs of its characters, from the teenagers who drive the plot to the older characters on the fringes, are evident in every moment. The religious terror of this movie is more identifiable and more cinematic than the generally secular films that surround it. Most of the movies in this series are about a family's final bad weeks being caught on camera. This one is about someone's beliefs, their faith, being shattered by the forces of evil.

And while it's doing entirely new things with plot, location, and character, The Marked Ones also manages to find time to push the series mythology forward in some really insane ways. What at first feels like a spin-off soon becomes a vital chapter of the entire saga, tying directly into the events of the first film. This may not be the most iconic Paranormal Activity film, but it's certainly the most well-rounded and entertaining of the bunch. It's proof that this series could have only benefited from trying entirely new things.