By the time a horror movie franchise reaches its third movie, success becomes a matter of keeping the familiar while avoiding tedium. With the Paranormal Activity series, the problem is compounded by its constrained voyeuristic premise, in which the films are limited to footage from camcorders and using static security-style cameras.
So give credit to Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the co-directors of Paranormal Activity 3, for finding a couple of new ways to tie knots in the same old matchbox. We expect something clever from the two men who gave us the social media documentary, Catfish, and eventually they deliver.
Once again, the film uses the pretense that the viewer is being exposed to ellipticaly-edited "found footage" examined in the aftermath of a grisly event. The current film is presented as a prequel, in which we learn about the childhood traumas of sisters Katie (Katie Featherston of the first film) and Kristi (Sprague Grayden of the second). During a house move, a box of old VHS tapes from 1988 gets lost, and then, for no particular reason, we find ourselves watching them in order, along with some unseen viewer.
That said, the first 45 minutes of this film feel like far too much normal and not nearly enough para. We are back in the late 80s, as genial Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), a wedding videographer, takes up residence in a new spacious house in Carlsbad, California, with his girlfriend, Julie (Lauren Bittern) and her two daughters. They soon start hearing the usual strange noises in the night. And soon, it appears that the youngest daughter has an imaginary playmate named Toby, who seems to be rather big and angry. Dennis sets up some video cameras.
In the new film's best new tricks, Dennis rigs one camera up on the base of an oscillating fan, so the camera pans slowly away from a slightly disturbing image at one side of the spacious living room, and then slowly back again to review something even more alarming. The two girls – assertive older sister Katie (Chloe Csengery) and timid Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) – are their own kind of special effect. At times, they suggest the visual symmetry of the ghostly twins in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, while at other times are down-to-earth chatty kids who just happen to have conversations with people who aren't there.
As with the previous films, the first half is more about black comedy, with fake scares and the kind of fractious domestic bickering that makes you side with the house's dark forces. Dennis becomes obsessed with videotaping everything in the house while the skeptical Julie (Lauren Bittner) wants to leave well-enough alone. (She may have a point: The series repeatedly implies that video cameras trigger paranormal activities.)
But at other times, the couple are more affectionate than their predecessors in the previous films. They even attempt a sex tape which, of course, gets interrupted by the prudish spirit in their house.
The last 30 minutes of the film ratchet up the shocks dramatically, served up with a large side order of silly exposition (a witches coven – really?) setting the stage for sequels to come.
As with the previous films, PA3 offers an usual opportunity to study someone else's home decor in detail, in this case the awful pretentiousness of California suburban interior decorating circa 1988. The cathedral ceilings, over-sized foyers and broadloomed bedrooms are truly the stuff of nightmares.
Paranormal Activity 3
- Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
- Written by Christopher B. Landon
- Starring: Chloe Csengery, Jessica Tyler Brown, Lauren Bittner and Christopher Nicholas Smith