As a person terrified by the prospect of encountering a shadowy figure in my apartment in the middle of the night, the “Paranormal Activity” movies work like gangbusters on this writer. On an intellectual level, It’s genuinely admirable how effectively they’re able to wring significant suspense out of so little happening on screen, but in terms of visceral impact, they’re among the few horror films whose effect on this viewer lingered long after leaving the theater. “Paranormal Activity 3” is less effective than its predecessors, but it still works when and how it needs to. As a prequel to a prequel that further explored the supernatural world created by Oren Peli, the film unwittingly reveals the dwindling supply of ideas left to be injected into the franchise, both in conception and execution, even as it offers a finale mostly worthy of its predecessors.
After a short introduction that reminds you who these two little girls go on to be, the film switches from HD footage to HD-as-VHS footage of Katie and Christie in their childhood home in 1988. Their mom Julie has a live-in boyfriend named Dennis who films weddings for a living, so when he sets up cameras to record the weird goings-on in the house, everyone’s pretty okay with it. But within a matter of days, things escalate as Christie’s imaginary friend Toby begins terrorizing Katie and anyone unlucky enough to be curious about him. As things escalate, Dennis is reluctant to tell Julie about some of the more shocking footage he captured, but when she starts to experience Toby’s powers first-hand they’re forced to decide as a family what steps must be taken – if they can be taken – to escape his ominous presence.
It’s important to note that there’s a good possibility that some of the footage screened at Fantastic Fest may be changed or removed entirely by the time the film is released to mainstream audiences on October 21st. And truthfully it could certainly stand to lose a few minutes of the non-horror stuff, in particular Dennis’ repeated explanations for why he would be filming all of the time. Generally speaking, the “reason for filming” is the biggest obstacle to a found-footage film’s success, but the first two ‘Paranormal’ films (mostly) successfully circumvented that problem, and this one has not only their success to live up to, but the added burden of its late-‘80s setting, when recording people’s daily lives was considerably less commonplace. But Dennis’ justifications are increasingly absurd, and for the sake of not calling attention to an obvious problem, at least a few of them should probably be removed.
But also key to the other films’ success was a certain degree of ambiguity about how and why this presence was after the girls, and “Paranormal Activity 3” clarifies those details – well, sort of – in a way that betrays the simple, clean throughline of the series. While there’s probably some value in creating a prequel that sets up the world to come, an explanation and examination of the mythology almost changes the very kind of film that “Paranormal Activity” is, when probably all that’s needed is an ending which, based on dialogue from the first two films, fits onto those stories.
Other than (by our count) three fairly terrible jump scares, however, the set pieces work as well as if not better than the ones in the first two films. “The presence” offered its opinion of the family’s sense of feng shui in ‘Paranormal 1’ and ‘2,’ and similarly here, pictures fall off of walls, household objects are moved around, and the family’s life is generally disoriented, though this time with two vulnerable little girls as possible victims. And “Catfish” directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman maximize the possibilities of that vulnerability, subjecting these poor girls to things that would leave us sleepless indefinitely.
The directors, like their predecessors, utilize the sound design, including that signature low rumble of bass that signifies something is going to happen, and create a great sense of mounting tension by giving a palpable, physical presence to Christie’s imaginary friend. That they’re more aggressive with the set-piece payoffs is a testament to this being the third film in the series rather than some unseen part of this creature’s plan, but again, those moments are undeniably powerful every time they happen.
We won’t spoil any of the film’s surprises, but we will say that the two theatrical trailers released thus far feature a wealth of material that is not actually in the film, suggesting that if it hasn’t already significantly changed, it still might be. But what’s currently in the film generates real, entertaining scares, even if they’re not necessarily best for fulfilling the back story previously established for the girls. This one most actively tested our resistance to character stupidity while still really terrifying us, and further, created payoffs that worked while making the least sense conceptually. (Without offering specifics, when a film works to establish physical dimensions and then contradicts them, it can still be scary, but it no longer seems to be working from the same, unifying template.)
All of which is why “Paranormal Activity 3” is an effective, crowd-pleasing horror film, and given its predecessors’ success, a seemingly inevitable box office champ. But for the franchise’s sake, they should probably go out on a high note with it working as a trilogy, rather than trying to milk it to more and more disappointing returns. [B]