I was largely unimpressed with the original Paranormal Activity, the low-low-budget ghost story sensation, and found the inevitable sequel entertaining only in its unintentional comedy. The Blair Witch found-footage gimmick doesn’t seem to have much to offer anymore, save for a lot of clunky exposition in trying to explain away the technique; hopes for a third PA film weren’t high.
Well, color me surprised: Paranormal Activity 3 is the best film in the series, and a damn scary ride. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (who caused a stir with their excellent is-it-or-isn’t-it-real documentary Catfish last year) build and maintain an incredible sense of dread throughout the film.
It’s an unnerving, even exhausting experience; while it can’t be called an enjoyable one, it’s incredibly effective at what it sets out to do.
A quick intro from the previous film establishes a mysterious box of video cassettes from the childhood of sisters Katie (Katie Featherston in the first film) and Kristi (Sprague Grayden in the second). Those cassettes, from 1988, contain the prequel story of the young sisters (now played by Jessica Tyler Brown and Chloe Csengery).
Mom Julie (Lauren Bittner) and wedding videographer stepfather Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) hear strange noises in their California home and, yup, decide to set up some video cameras to monitor the activity.
Aside from the handheld sequences, the majority of the film is told through three different camera setups: one in the parents’ bedroom, one in the girls’ loft bedroom, and the third attached to an oscillating fan downstairs.
That fan camera, rotating back and forth between the kitchen and the living room, is a stroke of genius: as the camera pans back and forth, objects and people move, disappear, and reappear, and Joost and Schulman delight in toying with our expectations about what we’re going to see. One of the film’s most memorable sequences deals with the perfectly surreal reintroduction of kitchenware.
Another memorable sequence involves an unadvisable bathroom game of ‘Bloody Mary’; we know something very bad is going to happen, and the longer nothing does, the more the tension mounts.
Unfortunately, something does have to happen: boo! jump scares are the name of the game here, whether they’re real ghostly doings or Mom in a Halloween mask.
But the scares here (as opposed to the second film) are expertly conceived: we know the filmmakers’ tricks, but they tend to work, and rather than deflating the tension they keep us in a fixed state of anxiety, just waiting for the next one to come around the corner to jolt us.
The only real negatives here are the storyline, which unnecessarily tries to explain itself (the original managed to keep its creepy vibe by staying intentionally vague) and the effects work, which lifts characters in the air and tosses them about the room. While never as overtly goofy as in the second installment, the filmmakers could have (again) learned something from the first film, which was more effective for what was off screen than what was on it.
There’s not much new in this installment, but as a nonstop scare show with an unrelenting sense of dread, Paranormal Activity 3 is immensely effective. I’m not easily affected by these things, but in the front row of a nearly empty cinema I frequently found myself looking over my shoulder. Watch at your own risk.