List of 5 paranormal horror films that either solidify or challenge sub-genre conventions.

Paranormal Activity (2007)

I’ve seen the whole Paranormal Activity franchise more times than I care to admit, but the most striking part in the entire series comes in the first twenty minutes or so of the first movie. Katie and Micah are so endearing and convincing as a couple that it’s hard to believe their relationship deteriorates as quickly as it does later. Rather than following the now-familiar trope in found-footage horror where the friends/couple/coworkers are already at odds when the film begins, Katie and Micah’s relationship seems pretty solid at the beginning of the film. So much so that, since we don’t know what the actual threat is going to be, the real fear is of what will happen to their relationship. Aside from the character development, Paranormal Activity has had a similar effect on the genre to The Blair Witch Project, mostly because of it’s strict adherence to the found-footage conceit. The later films in the franchise tend to over-explain the demon and the lore, breaking Stephen King’s rule that whatever’s behind the door is scarier in our heads than it actually will be, but the first film succeeds specifically because our viewpoint is so limited and the why of the haunting is so inexplicable.

Silent Hill (2006)

Including the Silent Hill movie, just like the Resident Evil movies, will, I’m sure, invoke some of y’alls ire. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the game franchises, and I understand when people rail against the differences across platforms. But just like with book adaptations, I strongly believe that we need to take each individual iteration on its own merits rather than comparing them across platforms. And Silent Hill has its merits. If you’re coming to it for the first time now, in 2017, it may not seem super great. The effects are dated, the acting is so-so, and the story is an amalgam of other, very familiar, narratives. But there’s a sense of nostalgia and charm attached to this one for horror fans who picked it up in 2006. There’s also some really interesting, Clive-Barker-esque monster design based on the video game art (which is what carries the entire second movie) that’s worth watching for.

The Descent (2005)

If you’re looking for easy-to-read, morally unambiguous, stock characters, this is NOT the movie for you. I can’t say that I love this film, it’s uncomfortable at times, in the same way that The Blair Witch Project is uncomfortable. There’s a bit less infighting in The Descent though, and having an entire female cast for a horror movie is beyond refreshing. It also passes the Bechdel test (two named female characters have a conversation about something other than a man for 60 seconds or more). The strongest part of the movie is its characters, who are complicated and unlikable at times, but who are, most importantly, well-rounded and three-dimensional. As for the paranormal element, I could just as easily put this film in the monster sub-genre later on, but there’s some question about whether the monsters are real, which leaves it open to speculation.

The Veil (2016)

As paranormal cult films go, this is more interesting in concept than in theory, but it is still worth a watch if you want to get a feel for the cult sub-genre conventions. The set-up is somewhere between Heaven’s Gate, The People’s Temple, and The Branch Davidians, with a handful of religious SF/horror devices thrown in for good measure. This is a great movie if: A.) you want a crash-course in cult horror, B.) you’re interested in actual cults and want to puzzle out what they took from individual cases, or C.) you want to watch a Jessica Alba movie that you aren’t compelled to turn off in the first 20 minutes (ok, The Eye wasn’t that bad, but it’s a remake of an excellent Hong Kong horror film). In all fairness, Thomas Jane and Lily Rabe are both pretty great in this, and it’s visually interesting, even if some of the effects look much older than 2016.

Sadako vs. Kayako (2016)

This made it onto the list solely because it’s the most fun I’ve had watching something in a long while. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. The ghosts from Ju-On and Ringu are tormenting two new young women who happen to live in the same town. The film opens with a great Urban Legends style opening that introduces the cursed videotape that holds Sadako Yamamura (Ringu), which establishes the division of time throughout the film. While the final battle (which is spectacularly ridiculous) is relatively equal, the majority of the film focuses on Sadako, giving Kayako Saeki a lot less screen time. This division is interesting because of the power difference between Sadako, who did as a little girl, and Kayako, who’s an adult. Further supporting this strange configuration is the fact that Sadako and Kayako are roughly the same size, and look like they’re wearing the same wet, matted, shake-out wigs. I certainly wouldn’t call Sadako vs. Kayako “high art” by any means, but it contributes to the genre in the same way as films like Freddy Vs. Jason and My Bloody Valentine: they solidify genre conventions, help build a consistent body of films for a given sub-genre, and provide a certain amount of fan service. And, don’t forget, camp is good for the soul.

Author: Geneveive Newman

Image Credit: NBCUniversal Entertainment Japan © 2016