In 2010, “Catfish” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and became an overnight sensation. Presented as nonfiction and credited to directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the movie followed the experience of Ariel’s brother Nev, a twentysomething photographer based in New York. Nev forms a relationship with a young woman online, only to discover through a little web research (handily captured on camera) that the person on the other end might be a lot different from what she claims. Aided by speculation about the filmmakers’ claim that they made a bonafide documentary, “Catfish” caught the interest of Hollywood bigwig Brett Ratner, who shepherded the movie into wide release.
On Wednesday, the newly successful co-directors showed up at 2011 Austin’s Fantastic Fest to premiere the gig they landed in the wake of “Catfish.” This one makes no documentary claims: “Paranormal Activity 3,” the latest addition to a series that began with Oren Peli’s micro-budget ghost movie in 2008, played to a packed house in one of the festival’s coveted “secret screening” slots. While Joost and Schulman didn’t participate in a Q&A, they showed up to introduce the movie with mini-cameras in hand (a reminder of the claim they made against “Catfish” doubters who wondered how they managed to record so many crucial moments in their lives).
Joined by actress Katie Featherston, the filmmakers told the audience that they had yet to finish the film but spent the past week slaving away at a rough cut. Regardless, it looked complete enough to me; additionally, the studio made no attempts to impose an embargo on journalists in attendance, opening the floodgates for critical scrutiny. As a fan of the first two, I was rooting for a worthy follow-up, but even lowered standards won’t excuse the faults here. While sometimes an unadulterated thrill to watch with an audience, it gets progressively dumber as it goes along, ending up as the weakest entry of the trilogy.
Still, it stands above any given “Saw” sequel for operating under the pretense of character-driven storytelling. “Paranormal Activity 3” begins with a brief prologue set in Carlsbad, Calif., the setting of the last movie. We briefly see young adults Katie (Featherston) and Kristi (Sprague Grayden), the sisters whose mysterious past involves an invisible, demonic force that destroys both of their lives in the earlier movies. At the end of “Paranormal Activity 2,” a possessed Katie murdered Kristi and stole her infant son, implying that the opening of its follow-up takes place before that climax. Eventually, the movie shifts even further into the past.
As usual, these early scenes take place under the guise of home-movie footage, with Kristi’s husband wandering around the house holding a camcorder. Katie comes over to her sister’s posh house with a blast from the past: Eighties-era VHS tapes from their recently deceased grandmother’s house, containing the horrific events of their childhood. They may not realize what they have, but soon enough the tapes start rolling and “Paranormal Activity 3” flashes back to 1988, where the tale remains.
This signals the first sign of problems: Who’s watching these tapes? If the viewers were any of the family members seen in the previous movie, the events contained on them would have influenced their behavior. By not taking this logical gap into consideration, “Paranormal Activity 3” immediately has the whiff of laziness.
Nevertheless, the tapes deliver a completely serviceable framing device for the remainder of the story. The events shift to Santa Rosa, where Kristi and Katie (now played by two child actresses) live with their mother Julie and her boyfriend, Dennis. A stay-at-home videographer, Dennis grows fascinated by inexplicable events around the house — slamming doors, footsteps, the usual — and decides to install cameras to capture the events at night.
The eerie curiosities pile up: Dust particles reveal the outline of a human figure, while Kristi appears to chat up her supposedly imaginary friend “Toby” in the dead of night. It becomes gradually obvious that “Toby” has some grim plans for the members of this doom-laden household.
Those familiar with the series know that the presence of the camera only makes things worse. “You gotta keep taping this shit, man,” says Dennis’ goofy assistant Randy, voicing the “Paranormal Activity” equivalent of the fate-sealing “I’ll be right back” line established in “Scream.” If you know the movies, you can guess which characters are screwed.
Adhering to the rules, Joost and Schulman go through the motions, reading up on demonology and eventually reaching the same conclusion of the characters in “Paranormal Activity 2.” (Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know more.) The deal is this: Grandma’s participation in a cult, stretching back to the 1930s, found her entering into a bargain with otherworldly forces. The trade brings her wealth in exchange for the sacrifice of her first-born grandson, but since Julie only had girls, a new deal must take place with the next generation.
Because that mythology already emerged in the first sequel, “Paranormal Activity 3” hardly adds anything new to the situation; instead, it pretends to fill a gap while basically just heaping on one calculated “boo!” after the other. The best of these involves a camera that Dennis mounts on a rotating fan base, resulting in a POV that swivels from one side of the room to the other, revealing new information each time. In general, though, the trick only requires somebody or something to pop into the frame at an unexpected moment.
One can forgive the overly familiar stunt for the sake of a few well-placed jolts, but “Paranormal Activity 3” can’t get enough of them. The cheap shocks certainly maintain the sense of a ride that’s always on the cusp of another drop. After awhile, it just feels like a punch in the gut.
At least that basic trick works. When “Toby” attacks one of the girls off-camera while the other stands just below the lens, watching the unseen action and shrieking away, “Paranormal Activity” loses all of its power. The characters lack the dimensionality needed in order for audiences to care when they’re in peril.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that an edgier movie exists somewhere in the outtakes. Since the directors evaded a Q&A after the screening, questions spilled out among various festivalgoers during a parking lot post-mortem. A publicist from Paramount wandered over to the crowd to gather reactions. One audience member noted the missed opportunity to litter the ostensible period piece with ’80’s references, capitalizing on the gritty, old-school VHS look (as Harmony Korine did with the retro-creepy “Trash Humpers”). Actor Dominic Monaghan, in town promoting his post-apocalyptic movie “The Day,” pointed out the best gimmick that “Paranormal Activity 3” had to offer: “I liked the fan cam,” he said.
Monaghan nailed it. The appeal of the “Paranormal Activity” movies, even when they click, revolves around a technique that doesn’t really deserve to be called filmmaking in any conventional sense. Thanks to clever angles and timing, each shot amounts to cinematic stunt work. By doing more with less, the original “Paranormal Activity” boiled down the ingredients of good horror to its most primal form. Then, it felt fresh; now it plays like a routine.
These movies must be fun to make, but it’s not the scare tactics that hold them together. The appearance of casual footage through which a story sneaks through sustains the illusion of watching real life. If you buy it, the fright factor runs deep. That fundamental appeal has been lost in “Paranormal Activity 3.”
However, the same appeal took on profound dimensions in “Catfish,” a mystery not only in terms of its plot but in the mystique surrounding it. The movie demanded theories about whether or not the directors faked the footage. The definitive answer wouldn’t matter because the ambiguity served the theme. Since Nev meets a woman through Facebook and takes her claims at face value, “Catfish” engages with the experience of a veiled identity in social media from the inside out. By questioning the documentary value of “Catfish,” one endures the same crisis as Nev.
With “Catfish,” Joost and Schulman presented an exciting new take on a curious genre known as the “reality thriller.” They smartly left questions about its veracity up to their audience. No such luck here. “Paranormal Activity 3,” the tiresome addition to a DIY phenomenon that blossomed into a full-fledged studio franchise, shouldn’t fool anyone.
criticWIRE grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The fairly positive crowd reaction at Fantastic Fest suggests the “Paranormal Activity 3” will probably maintain solid word-of-mouth and perform well at the box office on the heels of the previous film’s popularity. However, since it’s set to open in mid-October, Paramount now faces the task of sustaining fan buzz. It’s most likely to do solid business on opening weekend before plummeting fast.