Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Writer: Christopher Landon
Producer: Jason Blum, Oren Peli, Steven Schneider
Stars: Lauren Bittner, Chris Smith, Chloe Csengery, Jessica Brown, Katie Featherston
Recovered videotapes from 1988 document the original evil that haunted Katie Featherston and Kristi Rey as children.
The majority of “Star Trek” fans agree that “Wrath of Khan” is the best of the original feature films. Few “Friday the 13th” diehards (read: zero) would put “A New Beginning” or “Jason X” near the top of any best-to-worst list. And what self-respecting “Back to the Future” fan would claim the original to be his/her least favorite of the trilogy?
Now try finding a similar consensus on the “Paranormal Activity” movies. The PA series is well known in horror circles for having a vast chasm between supporters on the Pro side and naysayers on the Cons. But “Paranormal Activity” does more than divide horror movie aficionados with like it or lump it attitudes. It also splinters its own fanbase. For every fan who loved the first and hated the second, there is someone who hated the first and loved the second.
It’s ironic that opinions about each installment’s entertainment merits are so inconsistent. Because the one thing universally true about every “Paranormal Activity” film to date is how consistent the formula always is. Three movies into the series and “Paranormal Activity” knows how to cruise with the top down, navigating every turn with speed and with confidence. How can it not when it has made this same trip twice before?
Not-yet-but-soon-to-be-cursed sisters Katie and Kristi live with their mother Julie and her boyfriend Dennis. Dennis is a trade up from both Micah and Daniel. For starters, he is not the resident skeptic. In fact, he is the first person to wonder aloud if unexplainable thuds and fleeting shadows might have a supernatural origin. Secondly, he is extremely personable. Katie and Kristi would go on to attract jerky beaus who belittle batty ideas with a snarky harrumph equivalent to a “shut up.” Their mother Julie had better taste in men with kind hearts and playful demeanors.
Plus, it is an easy matter to be on the side of a man who is this good with someone else’s children. Although that unmarried detail adds some weirdness when he asks his girlfriend, “mind if I set up a few cameras around the house?” You know, like in your daughters’ bedroom while they sleep?
Since it has a flashback prequel setting, PA3 employs the first of several logic leaps by making Dennis a wedding videographer with enough videocassettes to rival the free time he has to review them all. 1988 is two decades early for society’s “record whatever whenever” mentality, so this explanation is as close to believable as possible for why three bulky VHS camcorders run day and night.
More factually bothersome is the way PA3’s story is sandwiched into the already established arc. As Kristi and Katie’s first experience with a demon they did not know much about in their individual movies, the events here have to fit in a way that having never been referenced before makes sense. PA3’s answer? Amnesia.
Once again, the audience has to be willing to let the movie get away with some of these conceits for it to have any chance of working. At the same time, the “Paranormal Activity” franchise can only ask viewers to look the other way so many times before the formula goes stale for everyone, not just the jaded folks who have already tuned out.
“Paranormal Activity 3” cheats every so often in other areas, too. Dialogue includes pop culture references like “bow chicka wow wow” and seeing the Virgin Mary in toast. 1988 might be too soon for such mentions to have made it into a regularly used vernacular, but maybe it is close enough to not care.
Cheats that others may find less forgivable are the jump scares. Although they may be indefensible as cheap gags, arguing them as ineffective would be a bigger waste of breath. PA1’s first scream was over a spider. PA2’s had to do with an unflushed toilet. PA3 goes for less of a fake out and more of a real jolt, even though its opening kickoff is also a touchback. Indeed, virtually every scare in PA3 comes from a sudden “boo!” or a slow creep culminating with a bang. It is low hanging fruit for a horror film, but it does put a spring in the seat.
What “Paranormal Activity 3” really turns into its toy is its knowledge of audience expectations for how these movies play out. PA3 does not flip that script, but it punctuates predictable beats with louder fireworks to keep unsettling tension high.
PA1 used a stationary camera with only one doorway to keep an eye on. PA2 added more angles while cluttering up each shot with doors, windows, cupboards, and other entry/exit points where anything could happen. Darting eyes around darkened frames looking for the next fright became a game. PA3 puts one of its cameras (brilliantly) on an oscillating fan panning between the kitchen and the living room. It deliberately makes that game harder to play. PA3 devilishly says that what you really want to be looking at is now off frame, but just wait until we pan back…
“Paranormal Activity 3” has several such tricks up its sleeve, yet they are still tricks. That is what makes its temporary satisfaction feel so ultimately unfulfilling. Calling it déjà vu all over again would be an understatement. Knowing that PA3 had the benefit of an established template to follow makes it more of a mediocre experience than if it were not the third tour through well-trod footsteps.
It’s like going through a favorite haunted house attraction at Halloween. The first trip is so enjoyable that going again is a must. By the third time, the effort and enthusiasm can still be appreciated, but knowing where all the scares are takes away from authentic thrills. Eventually, the thought dawns that if there is any hope of recapturing that first time rush, the creators either need to try something different, or the audience needs to move on to another attraction.
Review Score: 65