Please welcome guest reviewer Brandon Wolfe. He is a simple man. Uncomplicated-simple, not dumb-simple, of course.
Released in 2009, the original Paranormal Activity was a breath of fresh air for horror fans weary from too many years in the torture-porn ghetto with the Saw franchise and its myriad descendants. But it was also immensely gratifying for horror fans that had long yearned to see a haunted-house film that didn't lay it on too thick. There is something almost universally unsettling about the idea of your home being invaded by an unnatural force you cannot see nor comprehend, and the best ghost stories are the ones mundane enough to seem eerily plausible.
Yet for years, cinematic ghost stories were never content to adopt a subtle approach to the haunted-house subgenre, instead offering up latex monsters, computer-generated effects and grisly murders to goose an audience that the filmmakers didn’t believe would sit still for smaller-scale shenanigans like doors closing and sheets moving on their own. Even arguably the most respected forebear of the genre, Poltergeist, felt the need to amp up the proceedings with faces peeling off in mirrors and monsters jumping out of closets. Overtly fantastic elements like these have the effect of distancing the viewer from the experience. Sane human beings aren’t going to lose sleep worrying that they’ll be sucked into an alternate dimension through their television sets, but the notion of hearing a strange noise in your bedroom at 3:00 A.M. that you can’t identify is something you’re far more likely to carry home with you from the theater. Paranormal Activity understood that and ran with it.
And Paranormal Activity is still running with it. Paranormal Activity 3 takes us back in time to 1988, when Katie and Kristi (Katie Featherston and Sprague Grayden in the previous films, and in the prologue to this one) were children. Living in a spacious two-story home in Carlsbad, CA with their mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner, whose hairstyle is the only thing in the film other than a Teddy Ruxpin doll that indicates this is the ‘80s), and her boyfriend, a wedding videographer/tech nerd named Dennis (Christopher Nicolas Smith), the girls seem happy and well-adjusted, though Kristi often converses with an imaginary friend she calls Toby. After a small earthquake disrupts Dennis’ attempt to make a sex tape with Julie, the camera catches the silhouette of a figure made momentarily visible by debris falling from the ceiling. As a result of this discovery, Dennis decides to set up cameras in the master bedroom, the girls’ bedroom and (in the movie’s greatest stroke of ingenuity) downstairs on a camera mounted to the base of an oscillating fan, so that it pans back and forth between the living room and the kitchen. Gradually, Dennis’ cameras begin picking up more and more paranormal activity and the manifestations begin to grow increasingly hostile. Also, Toby the imaginary friend begins to seem less imaginary and even less friendly.
Paranormal Activity 3 again takes up the hallmarks of the series without compromising the franchise’s mission statement. The series is still all about the slow build, the static shot that the audience urgently scans every frame of for movement. The fan-camera is a particularly brilliant device because it allows the tension to build and build as we wait with mounting dread over what we’ll see as the camera slowly pans back to the other room. The series remains extremely shrewd about keeping the audience in a perpetual state of uneasiness over what might happen next, and doing a lot with a little.
Still, for as effective as Paranormal Activity 3 is as a nerve-wrecker, it doesn’t have quite the same haunt-your-dreams impact that the original film did. Much of this is simply due to the fact that nothing can remain entirely fresh when on its third iteration, but it’s also a result of the series expanding its wings a bit, making the supernatural hijinks of its mythology a bit larger than before. This isn’t really an issue until the climax, which inexplicably borrows heavily from the climax of The Last Exorcism, but it has the effect of removing some of the nuts-and-bolts simplicity that I believe worked in favor of the first two films.
There is also a question of how much what we see transpire at the end of the film syncs up with what we saw and learned in the previous films. The simple answer is: not much, which is why I suspect the fourth film will be a direct sequel to this one, to fill in those gaps. But wherever the series decides to go next, it will be interesting to see how (if?) they manage to get the found-footage angle in there yet again without it seeming too strained, a pitfall they’ve admirably managed to mostly sidestep thus far. Hopefully they can keep pulling it off for a while because it’s hard to imagine that the next annual Halloween horror franchise will be as effective as this one.
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