Fantastic Fest: Paranormal Activity 3 a Spooky Misfire, But Is There Still Time to Salvage It?

There was an inkling around town that Fantastic Fest's secret screening Wednesday would turn out to be Paranormal Activity 3, what with the viral VHS tapes surfacing in Austin this week and the seemingly perfect timing for the horror sequel, which hits theaters nationwide on Oct. 21. By the time the surprise world premiere was confirmed to a packed audience at midnight on Wednesday, it was a surprise many folks saw coming. So how did Paranormal Activity 3 measure up to its predecessors -- and what does it mean that it doesn't match up at all with its recent trailer?

First, the setup: In the summer of 2006, just prior to the events of the first two films, adult sisters Katie (Katie Featherston) and the pregnant Kristi (Sprague Graydon) discover a batch of old family VHS tapes from their grandmother's house, one of which is ominously labeled "September 1988." Flash back to that month in their totally '80s childhood (stocked with Teddy Ruxpins and hair scrunchies) when, as two young girls living with their mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) and her new-ish live-in boyfriend Dennis, the entire family is slowly accosted by a mysterious unseen force that shakes the walls, opens and closes doors, and does generally creepy things at night. Coincidentally, young Kristi (an astoundingly natural Chloe Csengery) happens to have a new invisible friend named Toby who talks to her at night and tries to get her to do strange things. Luckily, Dennis is a wedding videographer and a horny dude, so when an attempted home video sex tape session with Julie is interrupted by an "earthquake" -- and he spies a strange, impossible shadow stalking them in the playback -- he begins setting up video cameras around the house.

When co-directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost (Catfish) follow the template that's been laid out for them in Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity 2 -- i.e., build dread through the limited vision of what can be seen through a camera lens, break monotony with spooky jump scares, repeat -- their sequel is fairly effective. Like the first two films, Paranormal Activity 3 makes good use of simple ploys that set up audience expectation for something -- anything, really -- to shatter the illusion that all is well within the protective walls of suburban domestic bliss. One of Dennis's homemade camera rigs, affixed to an oscillating fan, offers a clever left-to-right panning view of the house that pays off a few times but is overused. Instead, it's the first-person scenes, seen through a handheld camera, that work best. At one point young Katie needles a family friend into playing a game of Bloody Mary that goes horribly wrong; like the audience she's asking to be scared, and the film mostly delivers on that front.

But while moments in Paranormal Activity 3 are terrifically frightful (there's a great one-take set piece that comes off like a magic trick, to great effect) the cut screened at Fantastic Fest is too slow a burn, a little too obvious, and has an ending that takes a sharp detour into horror cliché. It's one thing to have vague basement-dwelling demons swirling around the first two films, chasing their victims with a sinister specificity that suggests that Katie and Kristi aren't being randomly targeted. But the way screenwriter Christopher B. Landon (Paranormal Activity 2, Disturbia) opts to tie the trilogy together with a genre trope that's been done countless times before undercuts the unsettling groundwork laid by the first two films and, jarringly, takes the series in a disappointing, less-satisfying direction.

(It's worth mentioning that, as in the previous Paranormal Activities, there's no explanation for how we are watching the contents of Dennis's tapes, which frequently speed up from one event to another as if someone's pushing the fast-forward button. It's found footage, yes, but found by whom?)

Here's the curious part: The Fantastic Fest world premiere screening was prefaced by the disclaimer that the film wasn't "100 percent done," which sometimes means elements like color timing or final credits aren't in place. But once the film ended and the screen faded to black, holding uncomfortably long on a blank, black screen accompanied by an oppressive white noise tantamount to literal deafening silence -- an unpopular, showy move that baffled and annoyed some in the audience -- the realization set in that this film and the film represented in the trailer released yesterday are not the same creature.

I caught most of the new trailer yesterday before shutting it off, not wanting to be spoiled by the many, many seemingly spoilery elements it contained. But my fears were for naught; many of the moments I did see in the trailer, the big reveals and incidents that would surely be memorable scenes in the film, weren't included at all in the cut. [Spoiler warning, ironically.] Going back to watch the trailer again, I discovered that none of the crazy beats in the trailer, including the priest character, the house on fire, and the way characters are tossed around, made it into the film we saw here in Austin. [End spoilers.]

So what does that mean? Are Joost and Schulman still retooling their film, trying out crazy different scenes and endings before assembling Paranormal Activity 3 for its Oct. 21 release? Did Paramount's marketing team just happen to use wildly different footage in the editing room? Could there possibly be more than one version released theatrically, telling the tale of Katie and Kristi's childhood haunting via different scenes captured on home video? (That would be a neat idea; imagine the chaos come review time. Paramount representatives, incidentally, did not immediately respond to Movieline's request for clarification.)

The bad news for them is there are only three weeks to go before Paranormal Activity 3 hits screens nationwide, and as it stands this version of the film will be remembered as a misfire of a sequel/prequel. (There are even fewer days until Paramount sneaks the film into its top 20 Twitter-voted cities on Oct. 18.) If Fantastic Fest was a trial to see how a more subdued, slow-simmer would play, the filmmakers should get cracking to punch it up so that it doesn't go down as a movie trumped by its own trailer.