I, like everybody else, heard amazing things about this series. The first movie was made on the thinnest of shoestring budgets (less than $15,000) but has since grossed over 100 million. I had never gotten around to watching it. With a fifth movie announced, four in the can and a whole day to kill I figured, “why not a marathon?”
The one hallmark of the movies that I think is the deal-breaker for many critics is the incredibly slooooooooow burn. The first movie, especially, is quite literally almost all talk. Lots of talk. Then a quick scare! Then some more talk. There’s only two characters (with brief appearances by two others) and begins to feel like everything’s been said pretty early on. The first movie never really tries to explain the events which limits the options for conversation even more.
[It may be worth noting that I, apparently, saw the first movie with the original ending. However the sequels seem to rely on the more dynamic theatrical ending.]
All the movies are framed similarly: a long period of not much punctuated by brief shocks topped with a big climax. In the later movies additional characters made the extending introduction period more interesting but I’d have a hard time arguing with those that might call it “boring”. When things do happen they’re pretty effective – but they just don’t happen that often.
The following movies – two prequels and a sequel – attempt to frame and explain events for better or worse. Little real exposition is done however and everything said is basically of the “I read it on the Internet so let’s believe it completely” variety. There’s also some real continuity problems across the films. Background given in the first film often doesn’t jibe with the events of the next two (and the third really goes off the rails). This doesn’t totally kill the experience, but every moment you spend puzzling over weirdness in the script pulls you away from the edge-of-your-seat feeling that the movies rely on.
The biggest problem with all the films is that, as self-shot, found-footage movies they all, to a greater or lesser extent have to do some ridiculous acrobatics to explain why everybody is taping everything all the time. Most of this is explained by the characters installing security cameras or setting up persistent monitoring but much of the footage is clearly hand-shot. It’s often inexplicable why people would record what they’re recording or continue to record (or even carry the damn cameras) when they do. This issue becomes painful in the third movie and laughably ridiculous in the fourth.
Bottom-lining things: the first movie is an interesting experiment and mostly works. If nothing else you should always pay attention to things that return over 7,000 times on their investments. The second movie is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch but falls prey to the same issues as all found-footage movies. The third movie is the weakest; mostly because it wanders so far afield of the story already set. The fourth is more fun than the third, but mostly just because it’s so damn silly.