Written by: Christopher B. Landon, Oren Peli (characters)
Directed by: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Starring: Christopher Nicholas Smith, Chloe Cserngey, Jessica Tyler Brown
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Witness how the activity began.
When the original Paranormal Activity ended two years ago, I had little doubt that there’d be a quick sequel to cash in; after all, these found footage movies cost the equivalent of the money you can find in your couch, plus you can shoot them over a weekend, which almost guarantees that you’re going to make back at least fifty times your budget. However, I was quite sure we’d just get a standard knock-off part two that featured another random set of people being terrorized by a demonic entity--in short, I expected more of the same. The minds behind the series had something else in mind entirely, as they’ve gone and crafted a character-based mythology centered around Katie and Kristi, the two sisters from the previous two entries. Part two provided hints of their troubled childhood and hinted that the demon has followed them from their troubled past; now, part three goes back to show how it began in 1988.
It actually takes a few minutes before we go back to the 80s; instead, we start in 2005, back when Kristi was just pregnant with Hunter, the little boy who was last seen in the clutches of the possessed Katie at the end of the previous film. In this brief scene, Katie brings over a stash of stuff, which includes a cache of old home video tapes whose contents are unknown; we flash ahead to the timeframe of part two, just after Kristi’s house was vandalized, and those tapes have been stolen. Finally, we jump back to 1988, where the two girls and their mother have recently moved in with Dennis, a wedding photographer with a penchant for recording stuff. His hobby finds a utilitarian purpose when weird stuff begins happening around the house; Kristi’s got an imaginary friend named Toby who begins to wreak havoc, so he attempts to capture strange events on tape (some very high quality video tape, I might add--I don’t think they had 16:9 tape formats back then, and I think 80s SOV aficionados are going to be dismayed that this looks like a real movie, but I digress).
I think it would be somewhat fair to say that Paranormal Activity 3 offers many of the same thrills that made the first two films so effective. There’s still the nightly time-lapse photography stuff, objects moving around mysteriously, people brooding over other people sleeping in bed for hours, an unseen force yanking victims away, and things continuously going bump in the night. However, as this is a sequel, part 3 amps up all of these elements and reinvigorates them in many ways. Each of the previous two entries have been amazing examples of films that manage to provide suspense despite not having a lot of the traditional tools available to other horror flicks, such as music and stylish camera angles. Like its predecessors, this one relies on primal, eerie stuff--it shows you some things, but they’re often darting around the frame. Some things (such as Kristi talking to the unseen Toby) are kept unseen, and the film presents a fine mix of obvious and subtle scares to build tension.
Joost and Schulman (the guys behind Catfish) find some inventive updates, however. Not only are there once again multiple camera set ups, but also tighter editing; this feels like somewhat more of a cinematic experience, as we often see multiple events unfolding at the same time. This results in such a lean story; once the film was over, I was convinced it was only about 70 minutes long. Apparently, it runs somewhere around 85 minutes, but doesn’t feel it at all, partially because it’s almost relentless once it gets going. Following the established formula, the film builds off of slow, creepy scares before getting to the great jolts the series is known for. This one even manages to outdo the kitchen gag from part two, which is no small feat (if anything, Paranormal Activity does for kitchens what Halloween did for closets).
The requisite character development is fine--Dennis will likely remind you of Micah in his insistence and obsession with the activity, which probably means Katie is carrying some sort of weird Elektra complex. He’s got a buddy named Randy who is very funny, and one can sense that same sort of authentic chemistry amongst the cast that the first two films captured. Their shared humor is particularly refreshing, as this seems to be a bit more funnier at times without ever coming close to turning into a farce. You might be surprised to discover that Kristi takes center stage as a young girl over Katie; the young actress playing her is both adorable and obviously disturbed at times. Katie is a bit more adventurous as a child than she is as an adult, and the game of Bloody Mary that she plays perhaps explains her timidity when she gets older. Whenever the two kids are involved, this feels like a more menacing version of Poltergeist, and I wonder if the name “Toby” isn’t a nod to Tobe Hooper.
That game of Bloody Mary is one of a few absolutely suffocating scenes. Claustrophobic viewers should be prepared to be trapped in some dark, confined spaces multiple times. This is something somewhat new to the series, and it works wonderfully because you can feel the assault from all sides. Interestingly enough, another inspired choice manages to open the film up, as Dennis jerry-rigs a panning camera out of an oscillating fan, and this viewpoint acts as a sort of hub for the house. It creates tension because one never knows what’s awaiting around the frame during each agonizing pan. One of the film’s best sequences involves a babysitter doing her homework at the table as the demon stalks her while covered in a bed sheet, and the sense of movement and manipulation of viewing space is unnerving. The image of a babysitter being prowled is almost reminiscent of a slasher film, with the bed sheet gag particularly making it resemble Halloween, which speaks to the very physical presence of the demon this time around. One always senses the he’s brooding over the proceedings.
All of this is of course leading up to yet another frantic climax that acts as a concert of frights. Shifting entirely to a handheld first person perspective at the end, we’re guided through what feels like a spooky haunted house. Low-lit and filled with creepy shadows, this house reveals some secrets that were especially hinted at in the second film. From a mythology standpoint, this film leaves on a somewhat surprising note, as I think fans will be startled by just what (and who) they don’t see. In true horror fashion, this one leaves you wanting more, and I have no doubt we’ll get it in part four this time next year.
This almost feels like the later Saw films, some of which only seemed to exist to stretch the franchise out as it dangled more secrets in front of audiences. I’d consider this to be a blatant, obvious stop-gap film that doesn’t do much to propel the overall narrative, but such is the nature of prequels. Besides that, it’s so much fun as a pure horror movie that one doesn’t quite care that we’re being strung along by yet another franchise. Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way, especially since Paranormal Activity 3 shakes things up a bit and still manages to be just as riveting and suspenseful as the first two. It’s becoming a yearly tradition for me to say this, but some of you need to get ready to sleep with the lights on again. Buy it!
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