With the Saw franchise having at long last ended in 2010, the Paranormal Activity series is now moving in to claim Saw‘s former Halloween release timeslot. But Saw and Paranormal Activity are different types of horror movies – while the Saw pictures relied on gratuitous violence and gore to generate thrills, the Paranormal Activity series is more reliant on psychological terror, nail-biting tension and proper suspense. Both franchises do share something in common, though: each instalment can be made on a tiny budget and is guaranteed to pull in enormous box office profits, meaning that artistic integrity is a lesser concern. While Paranormal Activity 2 was a worthwhile follow-up that satisfactorily expanded upon the franchise’s mythology, 2011’s Paranormal Activity 3 is a lazier effort from a script standpoint. Nevertheless, it’s well made – the filmmakers did just enough to keep the formula from becoming stale thanks to the prequel angle and the adept efforts of directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman.
Set in 1988, 8-year-old Katie (Csengery) and her 5-year-old sister Kristi (Brown) live with mother Julie (Bittner) and her wedding videographer boyfriend Dennis (Smith). Due to his passion for photography, Dennis begins documenting their daily lives with his camera equipment. However, he soon begins to capture mysterious supernatural occurrences on-camera. Intrigued, Dennis sets up a few cameras around the house to record nightly activity and potentially capture evidence of a paranormal intruder. Unexplainable occurrences continue to intensify as the days elapse, so Dennis decides to conduct research and bring in camera assistant Randy (Ingram) to help.
The problem with Paranormal Activity 3 is that it does too little to expand upon the mythology of the series. There are a few interesting developments, but the movie is more interested in scary payoffs. When Katie and Kristi discussed their childhood in prior movies, we heard that there was a major house fire and a dark figure that appeared at the foot of Katie’s bed… But none of this is addressed in the film. What’s more disheartening, though, is that the trailer suggests this material was filmed but cut out. In fact, more than half of the stuff from the trailer is nowhere to be seen in the finished movie! It insinuates that Paranormal Activity 3 was more substantive in an earlier edit before being cut down to its basic meat and potato elements, rendering the film interesting but a bit too disposable. It also suggests that the producers wanted to save more stuff for future instalments in order to keep milking the series. (After all, in the first film Katie said the hauntings began at age 8 and started again when she was 13. Did the filmmakers intentionally neglect to fill gaps to save material for a fourth film? This theory is solidified by the fact that among the VHS tapes at the beginning are tapes labelled ‘1993’; the year that Katie was 13.)
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman made quite a splash last year with the documentary film Catfish. And because Catfish‘s authenticity is so hotly debated, the directors were an ideal choice for Paranormal Activity 3. To Joost and Schulman’s credit, the film’s sense of authenticity is tremendous, and nothing seems false or staged. And my word, the filmmakers did a terrific job of making this picture scary – the proverbial slow-burning set-pieces are unbearably intense. To put a unique twist on these scenes, one of the cameras is placed atop an oscillating fan stand, allowing it to alternate between the kitchen and living room areas. The directors used this technique to create many moments of effective terror. Also note-worthy is the riveting, bone-chilling tour de force of a climax. Furthermore, certain set-pieces are alleviated with a bit of sly humour here and there, which is a welcome touch.
Perhaps the biggest issue with Paranormal Activity 3 is that the photography is too crisp and sharp, as if the film was shot with contemporary high definition video cameras rather than the VHS-loaded consumer camcorders of the 1980s. We’re supposed to be watching ancient (probably glitchy) VHS tapes, so the sharp photography is detrimental to the material’s sense of legitimacy. Additionally, the demonic entity here is too vicious compared to its more placid behaviour in the first film, leading to more “in your face” scares than subtly terrifying moments. It still terrifies you, sure, but it feels a bit cheaper. Another glaring flaw is that screenwriter Christopher Landon (Disturbia) struggled to make it seem plausible for the characters to keep filming throughout certain events. It’s a common fault of “found footage” movies, and this is no exception. (Why does Dennis film conversations with Julie? Why does Randy keep filming when he’s attacked?) The climax gets a free pass in this case, though, because the camera’s light becomes Dennis’ only source of illumination.
On a more positive note, the performances are effective right down the line, generating a plausible realism and tremendously aiding the vérité aesthetic. Christopher Nicholas Smith (who actually looks a bit like Micah…) is especially good and believable in the role of Dennis, which is fortunate because he was tasked with delivering most of the requisite plot exposition. Child actresses Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown also excel as young Katie and Kristie – they both possess an adorable childlike innocence, and their dialogue delivery sounds completely natural. In some scenes, their cries of hysteria seem heart-breakingly real. In the role of Julie, Lauren Bittner is also impressive – and on top of being able to sell every emotion and line of dialogue, Bittner shares a striking resemblance to Katie Featherstone. Meanwhile, as Randy, Dustin Ingram is superb comic relief; he lightens things up when the film becomes particularly dark.
Ultimately, the intention of any horror movie is to scare audiences and generate an atmospheric, intense environment. Thanks to the able directorial efforts of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, this third Paranormal Activity manages to do exactly that. It delivers the franchise’s staples in a very effective fashion, and the film is both enthralling and entertaining. If that’s all you want, then that’s precisely what you get. At the end of the day, though, the script is just too underdone. This series could have worked as just a rounded trilogy that examines the ghostly history of this family, but Paranormal Activity 3 truly feels like the producers are purposely excising details in order to milk the series for every film they can. It will indeed be interesting to see the footage which was cut out of the finished product… Perhaps it further illuminates on the franchise’s mythology in a more substantive way.