Cult Movie Review: Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

I finally screened the inevitable Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) and aside from a few quibbles about the authenticity of the setting and milieu (VHS), I felt it was a more-than-serviceable entry in the series.  This new edition of the “found footage” franchise comes from directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the masterminds behind the brilliant is-it-or-isn’t-it-a-documentary Catfish, which I reviewed here. Paranormal Activity 3 is not in the same class as the powerful, surprising and emotional Catfish, but the jump scares, at least, are splendidly choreographed.  There’s a visual ingenuity behind this installment of Paranormal Activity that the other series films lacked, and which provides a modicum of originality.

Paranormal Activity 3 escorts viewers back to late 1988, a span during which Katie and Kristi – the two women “haunted” by a demon in installments one and two – are little girls.  Their new Dad, Dennis (Chris Nicholas Smith) is an underemployed wedding videographer.  After making a sex tape with his wife Julie (Lauren Bittner), he unexpectedly spots something unusual in the footage: dust landing upon what appears to be a ghost…and being shaken off by the nearly invisible presence.  This creepy incident spurs Dennis to set up video cameras around the house and stage an around-the-clock, day-after-day vigil.  What Dennis ultimately sees happening to his step-children, their babysitter and his own assistant videographer, Randy, drives the family out of the house in a panic…and into the loving arms of Grandma Lois (Hallie Foote), who boasts a few secrets of her own…

The most significant problems with Paranormal Activity 3 are ones of presentation authenticity.  The footage we see in the film is widescreen in format, thus clearly not originating from a video camera in use circa 1988.  The aspect ratio should be 4:3 (like it was in The Blair Witch Project), and the makers of this film could certainly have mirrored the grain and blur of old videotape without completely sacrificing watchability. So if you’re a stickler for details like that, Paranormal Activity 3 doesn’t pass muster. If you ever shot a home video in the late 1980s or early 1990s, you realize the footage doesn’t look anything like what we view in this film

And despite a guest appearance by the once-popular talking teddy bear Teddy Ruxpin and a mention of MacGyver, Paranormal Activity never really feels as though it is occurring in the 1980s.  The house where most of the action occurs looks too big and open to be a house of that time period. To see what expensive, middle-class homes looked like in the 1980s, I would refer you to Risky Business (1983) or Sixteen Candles (1984).  But the home featured here, with its wide open spaces and vaulted ceiling very much looks like 21st century McMansion chic.  I’m not saying no houses like one this existed thirty years ago, only that the setting contributes nothing to the feeling that we’re watching something that occurred in the last months of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.  The fashions and haircuts don’t look right either.  A babysitter shows up and appears as though she’s dressed for a sock hop in the late 1950s, not the late 1980s.

In visualization, I would compare Paranormal Activity negatively with Apollo 18(2011), a much-derided found footage film that actually did a more-than-admirable job of recreating 1970s technology and detail, but which people hated anyway.  Paranormal Activity 3 can’t compare so far as visualization, or in the capturing of a specific decade in recent American history.

But probablythat kind of thing doesn’t matter to most viewers.  What Paranormal Activity 3 does possess in spades are some of the scariest and most inventive “jump” moments in the franchise thus far.  About mid-way through the film, Dennis sets up a video camera on an oscillating fan, so it can ping-pong from a view of the kitchen to the foyer and back again.  Standing right in the middle of the frame — between rooms – is a structural column which obscures a critical part of that interior landscape.  One scene mines this set-up perfectly, as a mysterious figure under a sheet slowly approaches an unawares babysitter.  The reveal in this scene is breathtakingly scary, made more so by the predictable but ultimately unrevealing movement of the camera.  And this isn’t the only moment of genuine terror in the film.

Another moment of throat-tightening tension and horror emerges as little Katie (Chloe Csengery) and the videographer’s assistant Randy (Dustin Ingram) stand in a small upstairs bathroom and play a game of Bloody Mary in the darkness while facing a wall-length mirror.  The scene escalates and escalates, until your anxiety is palpable.  Part of what sells this scene so effectively is the performance by Ingram.  He’s the only adult in the house at this point, and he has a child to protect.  But he also experiences something absolutely horrifying.  How his voice and behavior shifts from outright panic to false reassurance, for Katie’s sake, is nothing short of brilliant.  This moment may represent the finest scene in the film, and it’s because we sympathize completely with Randy’s situation.  He’s got a child to protect, but on the other side of the bathroom door – the only escape route – all hell is breaking loose.

One of the unintentionally funny aspects of the Paranormal Activity film series thus far has been the dramatic over-use of wire work.  Main characters are suddenly pulled and yanked down stairs, out of houses, and across rooms by an invisible demon.  The effect has been so overdone that it has lost its impact.  Paranormal Activity 3 dials these “demon yanks” down to an absolute minimum (just once, I believe), and  charts horror in more unusual and creative set-ups.  One such set-up is the final straw that sends the family fleeing their home  It occurs in the kitchen, and involves the oscillating fan/video camera set-up again.  Once more, I’ve got to give this devil his due: this moment is splendidly vetted, and absolutely unexpected, a cascade of terror that will scare the hell out of you.  Once more, the trick comes in the clever mining of expectations.  The droning oscillation, back and forth, has become predictable and anticipated, but in the span of one ping pong, something totally amazing — and horrific — occurs.

I was agnostic about Paranormal Activity 2 because it employed what I termed in my review the Michael Myers principle.  In other words, the film began to add meat to the bones of the franchise story arc, much the way Halloween II (1981) introduced the notion that Laurie was actually Michael’s sister, and that he was killing his family members.  It was an explanation, sure, but did we really need an explanation for the Shape, for the Bogeyman?  Knowing why he killed people just took away some of the terrifying ambiguity of the character.  Similarly, in terms of  the hauntings in Paranormal Activity 3, do we really need to know all the details of why a nasty demon, here an imaginary friend called Toby, is menacing Katie and her sister, Kristi?

In this case, however, Paranormal Activity 3’s many additions to franchise lore and the larger story are undeniably effective. The characters are paper-thin in concept, background, and development. Therefore, any deepening of them, even if it mitigates, overall, the franchise’s sense of ambiguity, is likely a good thing.  With this film, you get a pretty good sense of where Katie and Kristi came from, how evil came into their lives, who summoned it  and how it was wed to Katie. Literally.

I can’t argue persuasively that Paranormal Activity 3 is anything deeper than an entertaining and scary movie, but even on those limited terms it is possibly the best of this particular franchise.  Like the other two entries, the film must devote a lot of time and energy to justifying its own existence and appearance.  When Julie, Dennis’s wife, gets upset about the video cameras running all the time, for instance, she says “This ends tomorrow!”    Tomorrow?!  Why not right now?  Well, because the video cameras must be running for one, more, creep-filled night, of course.  Therefore, Julie’s dialogue provides the screenwriters some wiggle room.  Also, Dennis and Randy garner evidence of malevolent entity activity early in the film, and delay from telling Julie – or even seeming worried – for far too long.  Beyond all reason, in fact.  The film kind of cheats about that point, and doesn’t really grapple with the fact that Dennis is playing Russian Roulette with two little girls’ lives.

Not all the plot-lines are developed well, either.  In one early scene, Julie’s mother complains (before the recording camera) about Dennis’s lack of significant income.  She’s pretty hard on him.  Now remember, Dennis is reviewing all the footage every single day, so – of course – he would see this conversation.  You might think he’d have an opinion, or confront his wife about it.  But the movie never even makes clear that he’s seen it.  It’s just a dropped thread.

As I wrote in regards to Paranormal Activity 2, the one thing I appreciate most about these films is how they linger in that potent idea of sleepy twilight, of being awake at 3:15 in the morning, and not quite having an accurate sense of what is going on.  That’s a scary, confusing time to be awakened, when a strange bump in the night can really get the adrenaline going.  Paranormal Activity lives in that realm too, and quite successfully so.   The world is asleep, or should be, but something unsettling lurks just at the edges of perception.  I think we’ve all experienced this feeling, and can relate to the characters’ situations.

In the past, I have been tough on the Paranormal Activity franchise  because of what I perceive as its over-eager desire to please and satisfy.  For instance, I absolutely hate the final shot of the first film, where Katie’s face morphs into that of a demon right on screen, so no one can complain (a la The Blair Witch Project) that they didn’t’ get their money’s worth, that they didn’t see the monster.    Nope, we get a perfectly framed, perfectly clear close-up!  But this time around, I noticed that in some weird way, the Paranormal Activity movies — and this one especially — may be working overtime to increase the attention-span of the average movie goer.  So much of this film’s running time is devoted to the routine panning back and forth, or the quiet recording of (apparently) empty rooms.  This technique not only generates suspense, it encourages one to look closely at absolutely everything, to make a mental snapshot in your head of what item is where, what light is turned on, and what, if anything, is moving in the frame.  Sure, this technique may be the cinematic equivalent of “Where’s Waldo?” but it nonetheless encourages an engaged, active audience.

If you’re a regular reader here, you know how I prefer horror movies that speak to matters of philosophy and offer social commentary.  I gravitate towards genre films that give me something to think about and chew on.  I can’t really claim thatParanormal Activity 3 – unlike Catfish – really includes that sort of material.  In terms of plot, it also plays a lot like the (much superior) The Last Exorcism.  But nonetheless, the film’s 84 minutes pass quickly, every jump scare actually works pretty successfully, and some of the “scare” set-ups are nothing sort of genius in terms of choreography  That’s enough for at least one viewing, I reckon.

With Paranormal Activity, the third time is definitely the charm…

3 responses to “Cult Movie Review: Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

  1. Hi John,I don't know about other episode but i am really scared after seeing Paranormal Activity part 1. are you afraid of the dark

  2. I have been a sucker for the found footage films since I first viewed 'B.W.P' in 1999. I much prefer found footage films, and specifically this franchise over the 'Hostel' or 'Saw' franchises. I also found PA3 to the best one of the three, though I too noticed the more modern home design, I just raised my suspension of disbelief a couple more notches. I really enjoy ff films, I find there is at least one redeeming scene in all ff films regardless of how ill-conceived and/or low budget the film may be. From a studio's perspective, this franchise is a veritable money machine. All 3 films cost slightly over 8 million dollars to produce, yet have earned just under 600 million in worldwide box office. With those kind of numbers, I expect to see at least 2 more sequels, maybe 3.

  3. Are you afraid of the dark: I didn't find the first Paranormal Activity particularly scary, in part because I didn't feel it worked technically…and was kind of obvious. But PA3 has some chilling moments to be sure.Trent: I also absolutely love the found footage films, myself. We're in total agreement. For me BWP is still the best the genre has ever been, though REC is terrific, and I thought Apollo 18 was a thousand times better than critics claimed.The PA movies are indeed immensely profitable, and I understand we can expect part 4 in October. I think the third is the best so far, just the way you do…best,John

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