Paranormal Activity 3 (United States, 2011)

October 20, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Paranormal Activity 3 Poster

Paranormal Activity 3 is one of those obligatory sequels: films that use an existing template and attempt to populate it with different actors and new ways of scaring audiences. There are two significant problems with this approach here: the "first person" through-the-viewfinder perspective, in addition to being employed in ridiculous situations, has grown tired (this time, no attempt is made to "trick" viewers into believing they're seeing lost footage), and the narrative has transcended the point where its absurdities are easily ignored. The scares (if you want to call them that) are still there - one "boo!" moment after another, strung together like a breadcrumb trail through a labyrinth. So if that's all you want from a Halloween release like Paranormal Activity 3, you are the perfect audience member.

The first Paranormal Activity was an expertly crafted, low budget horror thriller that used the camcorder point-of-view and an escalating sense of dread to craft something more chilling than anything released since The Blair Witch Project. Paranormal Activity 2 was the inevitable result of the earlier film's success, and a pale shadow of its predecessor - proof, if any was needed, that no one expected the initial installment to open the franchise cabinet. It's hard to say whether Paranormal Activity 3 is better or worse than the first sequel. Although technically a prequel, it feels more like a remake of the original. The guy with the camera won't put it down regardless of the circumstances. He's the NRA Charlton Heston of home movies - the only way he'll release his clunky, 1988 VHS camera is to have it pried out of his cold, dead hands. (Something we suspect might happen.)

The time frame for these Paranormal Activity movies keeps regressing. Number 2 was (mostly) a prequel to Number One. This one begins with brief scenes in 2005 and 2006 (prior to anything previously shown), thereby allowing franchise stalwarts Katie Featherstone and Sprague Grayden to pick up paychecks. The majority of the story transpires in September 1988 when Katie (now played by Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) are little girls living with their mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). Dennis has a videotape fetish and, as soon as he suspects something odd is happening in the house, he sets up tripods and begins recording everything. This allows us to see how the "first haunting" develops. One wonders whether Paranormal Activity 4 will continue the trend of rewinding time or go back to the future.

This time around, the co-directors are Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who are no strangers to this style of filmmaking. Their "breakthrough" effort was the faux documentary Catfish. They have elected to film in 1080p color rather than in grainy black-and-white, which hurts the "reality" aspect of the movie. There is one clever touch - a camera is set up on the oscillating base of a fan, which allows it to slowly rotate through 180 degrees. Viewers can hear things happening just off-camera but have to wait a few seconds to see what's going on. Strangely, this approach is underused. As effective a way as it is for generating tension, Joost and Schulman never fully embrace it.

Although the horror elements of Paranormal Activity 3 are getting long-in-the-tooth, the filmmakers show a recognition of this by shifting the tone away from pure suspense and into the comedic fringe of the spectrum. No, this isn't a full-on parody, but there are some humorous moments. Some of these may be unintentional, but the majority are expected to generate laughs. When Katie and Dennis' friend, Randy (Dustin Ingram), play an ill-advised "game" of "Bloody Mary" in the bathroom, the results are laugh-aloud funny. However, if the goal is to generate howls of both laughter and terror, Paranormal Activity 3 falls short. It's too by-the-numbers.

Perhaps the sense of déjà vu is what appeals to viewers. They found the first one scary and this one uses the same basic mechanics. Paranormal Activity 3 might have worked better had it been decoupled from its predecessors, employing the same basic setup but using different characters. The least effective aspect of this film is when it attempts to further the "mythology" of the series. Halloween ran afoul of this problem as the early sequels attempted to develop Michael's backstory. The more one knows about a monster, the less interesting it becomes. That basic rule of horror films is often flouted. Here, the more we learn about the history of the demon, the less ominous the situation becomes. Where Paranormal Activity ended with a shock that provoked screams, this one concludes with a fade to static to the accompaniment of audience titters. Still, if viewed in a dark, lonely house with plenty of booze on hand, Paranormal Activity 3 might work, but I doubt that's the kind of qualified recommendation the filmmakers are looking for.

(A note about the trailer below: Without exaggeration, 50% of the material contained therein is not in the final cut of the movie. The trailer is in many ways a gross misrepresentation of the movie and seems to be taking the character of Julie in a different direction than the path she travels in the film. Very interesting to consider how the thrust of the narrative changed during the editing process.)

Paranormal Activity 3 (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2011-10-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1