Paranormal Activity manages a hat trick that most ongoing franchises can’t; just when it should be running out of steam, it course corrects and delivers an entry that is scarier, funnier and more distinctly cinematic than its predecessors. This isn’t art, but it is damn scary at times.
I wasn’t won over by Oren Peli’s original Paranormal Activity, although I admired its innovation and attitude. Katie and Micah were not protagonists I ever felt much like following, and there were simply too many scenes of the characters sleeping while small, near invisible phenomena manifested around them. To be honest, the creepiest thing in the film was Featherstone’s annoying squeak of ‘Meekah!’ every time something spooky went down. The sequel added more cameras and angles to view the action, and a slightly more sophisticated story that tied neatly into the original events. It too suffered from an irritating fidelity to the idea that the narrative be completely accounted for by recorded tapes. How many shots of the pool did we really need? By the end, I was rooting for the demon to bust a cap on all involved, including the filmmakers.
But, there was still something spooky in that concept—in the voyeurism of the multiple cameras, and the irrational fear of a medieval monster roaming the wastelands of suburbia looking for yuppies to terrorize. This installment solves some of those issues by easing up on the technical limitations of the venue–none of this imagery looks like VHS footage and some of the ambience in these scenes could never be captured by your standard 80′s camera equipment–and diluting the self-serious attitude of its predecessors. Joost and Schuman inject the proceedings with some of the same dark, awkward humor they delivered in the offbeat Catfish. They find time for more human details, among them a delightfully uncomfortable attempt at making a sex tape during an earthquake and some nonsense involving one character’s inability to use library cards. All of this takes the focus off the gimmick and puts it back where it belongs; on nerve-jangling fear and anxiety-inducing suspense.
The decision to go back in time and tell a different story that intersects and exposes the nooks and crannies of the original works well enough. We get a fresh set of eyes and a fresh perspective and the action shifts from mainly adult protagonists to two precocious children, who are old enough to register with us and young enough to alarm us when they are receiving or delivering supernatural mischief. The adults are still here though, and more relatable and endearing thanks to playful performances by Lauren Bittner as Julie, Katie and Kristi’s mom, and Christopher Nicholas Smith as Dennis, her younger, earnest boyfriend who is determined to capture the force terrorizing his girlfriend’s kids. They both have an easy chemistry with one another which adds some levity to the early chapters and makes the later ones more harrowing.
Dennis, for his part, is the most competent male character in the series. He’s in a relationship with an older woman, following up her financially well-off and established husband, and trying to be a good surrogate father to her kids. And when things that can’t be explained start happening to those kids—things that grow in alarm–he turns to his area of expertise; videography. When he tears the fan off its oscillator and replaces it with a camera, he not only gives the movie its niftiest visual tool, he also gives it a solid piece of character innovation. It is only in the film’s last third, when Dennis has put together most of the pieces of the plot and still inexplicably disregards them, that his character feels cheated by the script. Even then, his primary concern is still the wellbeing of his family.
As for the kids, they are central hub of this film’s activity. Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown)has just started talking to her imaginary friend Toby (which reminds of Danny Torrance’s bud Tony) and her older sister Katie(Chloe Csengery) becomes concerned when Tony starts physically lashing out and locks her in the crawlspace at the back of the girl’s room. When Dennis sees something impossible captured on his camera, he starts to connect the dots between what’s happening to the girls and what’s showing up on video. Both young actresses do a dependable job of just being kids and reacting with authenticity to the more intense and frightening moments of the film. Refreshingly, PA3 is mostly devoid of gore and violence and those scenes where an unseen beastie ransacks the room and drags the girls’ around must have been a great bit of make believe to perform in front of cameras. This isn’t a kid’s film, but there’s no reason to think children were traumatized in the making of it.
That change of perspective, from adult fears of invasion to a world of childlike imagination and nighttime bogeymen, is matched in the adjusted visual style. Now there are cameras directly in the action, most of the time at the eye level of a child, making everything more intimate and ultimately spookier because of it. The children’s room, with the phosphorescent fish tank bubbling calmly in the background, is a great set; one of comfort and refuge. When it is invaded the tension rises appropriately. I liked this aspect of the film, giving each room its own emotional identity. The rotating fan, which shows first one side of the house and then the other—between the dining room and the kitchen—sets up a visual game that plays like Where’s Waldo or Hidden Pictures, with the audience trying to take inventory of all new elements (or ones that have magically disappeared) before being routed back to the other frame.
There are two scenes with the camera fan—one involving vanishing kitchen equipment and the other featuring the babysitter and a pesky white sheet—that are perhaps the most exciting scares in the whole franchise. There’s a shivery, good natured jolt to them. The same is true of the Bloody Mary sequence, where Katie and Randy—Dennis’ video bud—play the grade school game in front of a mirror and get more than they bargained for. Sure, there are more visual effects at work here, but they are still treated with subtlety, trading up digital demons for seamless depictions of supernatural/invisible attack.
I enjoyed Paranormal Activity 3 as a kind of haunted funhouse. It involves many false scares in the early going, and then many more legitimate ones—still cheap– as it goes along. The story and the concept are secondary to the boogedy-boo atmosphere that Joost and Schuman have cultivated, and they take delight in the fact they get to play around with the structure of the faux documentary. One of the best things they bring to the table is the ability to share multiple perspective shifts when the camera footage changes. In PA2 we saw more of the house, but no more of the action. Here, we get more traditional cutting between action happening simultaneously, that improves the flow of the picture and brings the creepy earlier and more often. This is about as effective as this sort of thing can be done, and even if I’m not much a fan of this found footage genre, I can attest that the duo wring it for all the suspense they can.
In the end, the story here isn’t very good and it’s been cobbled and cribbed from other sources. The last third, which does an acceptable job of informing the creature’s actions in the previous films, moves towards a more traditional horror flick, and reminded me most of last year’s The Last Exorcism. That film was, until its own wrong-headed twist, a better, more thoughtful and atmospheric ‘found footage’ exercise. It cared about its characters and the situation they found themselves in. Paranormal Activity isn’t that concerned with issues of narrative and character, and uses them to furnish the walls of its spook show. I can accept that, and to an extent, appreciate it. Then again, by the time the kitchen furniture starts betraying gravity, you aren’t likely to be thinking about any of that anyway.