REVIEW: Paranormal Activity 3 Good for a Few Jumps and Giggles, But Evaporates Almost Immediately
My complicated muddle of feelings toward the Paranormal Activity franchise are directly related to my acute personal susceptibility to jump scares. They work on me embarrassingly well. A film that's as reliant on them on Paranormal Activity 3, the series' latest episode, can have me as twitchy as an meth addict out of agonized anticipation of the inevitable "boo."
After all, the majority of the shocks in these films are low-fi affairs -- that's one of their signatures -- that, taken alone, are no great shakes: A door slamming itself shut, the sound of footsteps in an unoccupied part of the house. The franchise stakes itself on the time spent waiting for these things to happen, as we take in characters in the mundane, vulnerable pursuits of sleeping or puttering around the house. These images come to us via the fiction of an unmanned camera; there's no one there to step in to warn us when the spooky stuff pops up.
Like its predecessors, Paranormal Activity 3 is packed with moments primed to make you jerk back in your seat and fling your precious $8 popcorn in the air, some supernatural in origin and others goofy fake-outs. In between, it teases out the tension via the nighttime surveillance setups we've come to expect, as something demonic makes itself known in a suburban California tract home. I spent the majority of the film (as I did with its predecessors) stretched taut as a wire and filled with grumbly resentment. Is it effective? On a surface level, sure, though any feature so shaped around jolts is bound to be excruciating to me in about the same way one built around the graphic dismembering of puppies would be upsetting. But this easy button-pushing masks an experience that's awfully insubstantial. Good for a few old-school jumps and giggles, Paranormal Activity 3 evaporates once it's over like morning mist.
Directed by Catfish duo Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman and written by Christopher B. Landon, Paranormal Activity 3 continues the prequelly backwards-tracking of the last installment, flashing back to 1988 and events documented on VHS. After an intro that finds grown Katie (Katie Featherston) storing a box of tapes in the basement of her pregnant sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden), the film plunges into the footage that was stored on them, of a time when the girls -- now played by Chloe Csengery and a smashingly creepy Jessica Tyler Brown -- were living with their mom, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), a wedding videographer who gets drawn into taping the strange happenings around their house at night.
Other than a few set details (Teddy Ruxpin proves capable of being menacing without any demonic assistance) and a hideous period sweater or two, Paranormal Activity 3 doesn't go out of its way to recall the '80s. It's a choice that thankfully extends to its footage, which other than the brief use of a corner timestamp doesn't attempt to mimic the look or quality of VHS. When trying to persuade Julie to fool around with him on camera, Dennis captures the hint of a supernatural presence in the room, and sets up cameras by their bed, in the girls' loft, and downstairs to document the goings-on at night, when the majority of the oddness appears to take place. The activity is centered on Kristi's imaginary best friend, Toby, who she hints -- telling Dennis, for instance, that if she provides more details about Toby "I won't be safe" -- is a far more substantive and far less benign presence than her mother's "kids will be kids" dismissals indicate.
The last of the three placements involves the film's best idea, a camcorder that's mounted on an oscillating fan base in order to cover both the living room and kitchen. A few clever, suspenseful scenes unfold between the two locations as we're locked into the slow pan of the lens. Something ominous seems to be unfolding in one end of the floor, but we can't stay with it, having to continue along with the impassive scan of the camera. By the time we get back, it's gone, or grown, or relocated. It's a canny twist on the limited perspective that feeds so many of the scares in the trilogy in general, as things happen off screen that we can only hear or are forced to guess at. This idea also comes up with the camera in the girls' room, which focuses on them but excludes the closet in the corner, a low-ceiling space in which Kristi claims Toby lives.
Where Paranormal Activity 3's weak points show are in the unbelievable silliness of its characters, who in typical haunted-house fashion deny and stay put longer than any sane human being would in the face of such disturbances, in the found footage problem of having to justify why someone would keep filming in life-threatening situations, and in its mythology. The franchise has been forced to come up with additional backgrounding as it reaches into the past and introduces new characters, and what's provided here is a halfhearted mix of familiar elements from films like Poltergeist, The Blair Witch Project, The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby that come together for a finale that pulls out all the stops but ends up feeling a touch anticlimactic. The ending also raises some questions about how this film can possibly fit in with the other two -- "they were young and they forgot" won't really cut it. Then again, no one asks for Paranormal Activity's answer to The Silmarillion -- the film provides a few imaginatively eerie sequences and enough jolts to entertain a midnight crowd (and make this critic curl up into a ball of cowardice), which is all it needs to deliver.