Filled with the requisite amount of jump scares the haunted house sub-genre demands, Paranormal Activity 3 delivers the goods in an interestingly different manner than its two predecessors and in a way that will leave fans of the micro-budget horror series clamouring for a fourth entry. Not everything adds up perfectly, but the one thing that many people will deride it for doing is actually the biggest strength of the film: hinting at a possibility that the series might be ready to go in a more interesting direction. In this respect the film is certainly an improvement over the second film and in many ways it manages to be superior to the original.
Set largely in 1988, the film functions as a prequel to the series, depicting the formative childhoods of the women from the first two films. Katie (played here by Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) live in Southern California with their mother (Lauren Bittner) and their stepfather, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). Once mysterious unexplained phenomena begin occurring within their house, wedding videographer Dennis begins setting up cameras throughout the house to capture spectral evidence.
It all sounds like a bit of the same old, same old at this point, and the notion that the characters from the first two films had previous experiences with being filmed around the clock is a bit hard to swallow at first, but directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish) have found a successful way to breathe new life into a concept that might already seem to be on its last legs.
Joost and Schulman have created the first Paranormal Activity that openly feels like a movie. The material here is far too stagey to work as a found footage film (especially one that’s supposed to be late 80s camcorder footage but looks like it was shot last week in HD) so the directors simply focus on something somewhat brilliant: making an entertaining movie within a rigid framework. It isn’t so much a fly on the wall documentation of a happening, as it is something more sinister and voyeuristic. In this film, the audience is just as important to the story as the cameras are. These guys know that the audience is there to have a good time, but they want to make them earn that good time in a satisfying manner.
One of the things that I like best about this franchise is that it forces the audience to unwittingly become cinema studies majors for 90 minutes. The audience is constantly scanning the frame to see where the next big scare will come from, since the soundtrack for films of this style offer no clues aside from occasional low end rumblings once things have already begun to happen. The audience is so invested in not looking foolish that they are trying to find out how the magician is pulling off the tricks.
Joost and Schulman inherently understand that this is the biggest appeal of the series and they give the audience more than just clever hints to how everything is going to go down. They artfully obscure parts of their static camera angles so the audience will never get the whole story, including a really clever use of a camera strapped to an oscillating fan base that allows for both movement and obfuscation. Even genre fans who don’t necessarily want to intently study the image on screen will be sucked in by clever nods to horror staples like Poltergeist, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Child’s Play.
The onscreen performances are also the strongest in this entry. Smith and Bittner make up the most believable married couple yet, and the kids are simply stellar. Csengery and Brown both evoke Heather O’Rourke and Linda Blair at the same time. They are creepy, but wholly sympathetic; especially when the final ten minutes of the film turn into a different experience altogether and things get even more unsettling than the first two films. It actually veers pretty close to becoming almost like this year’s TIFF favourite Kill List in the best possible ways.
I suppose the biggest qualm I have with the film, other than a wonky premise and the fact that this in no way feels like a period piece, is that it might have worked better as a genuine movie instead of a found footage film. I can understand the trepidation of going in that direction after the critical debacle that was Blair Witch 2, but it really would have worked better in this case. The static camera gimmick set the tone for the series, but it doesn’t do the film many favours here. Even if filmed as a regular movie, the budget (which is the biggest in the series thus far) would have remained the same. I would like to see an entry in this series where they give up the “real life” pretence and simply make a movie that exists within the same world. Paranormal Activity 3 will probably at least earn quintuple its budget in the opening weekend, and on that basis the studio probably won’t tinker with the formula, but I’d be interested to see if any sequel could do it as well as this one does it.