The first movie scared the living hell out of me. The second movie, not so much. We’ve now reached the third movie, and while I maintain that horror movies should be judged by their ability to frighten and not by their status as franchise pushers, I have to admit that some of my faith has been restored. Although Paranormal Activity 3 is in many ways as clichéd as its predecessor, and although a few of the much publicized explanations are a bit obscure, it’s smoother, tenser, and pretty damn scary. On more than one occasion, you will jump out of your seat. The rest of the time, you will be clinging to your armrest (or perhaps the arm of your date) in sheer suspense. The previous film, which suffered from a repetitious formula and typecast characters, lacked that kind of power.
Yes, this movie is an improvement. It is not, however, up to par with the original Paranormal Activity, the most inventive and frightening horror film since The Blair Witch Project. This is to be expected, considering how high the bar was set. A year ago, this led to me to question why filmmakers push for sequels and/or prequels when one film is all it takes. I’m still asking myself this today. This movie works as a standalone horror film, but as a part of a franchise, it’s unnecessary. In one crucial way, it’s also unwanted. The tagline is, “Discover how the activity began”; my problem is that I never wanted to make this discovery. I found the first film so terrifying in large part because no explanation was given. We had a man, a woman, a surveillance camera, a haunted house, and nothing more. It didn’t matter why – it only mattered that it was happening.
Like the previous films, the subjects are sisters Katie and Kristi, and their story unfolds in the form of recovered home video footage. This time, however, we see them as young children in September of 1988, living at home with their mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas), who so happens to have his own business as a wedding videographer. This means, of course, that he conveniently has access to video editing equipment, which will come in handy as the activity becomes worse. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Dennis’ attempt at making a sex tape with Julie is interrupted by an earthquake; as they rush to check on the girls, the still-rolling camera captures dust falling onto an invisible presence. This footage prompts Dennis to set up cameras in strategic areas of the house. Sure enough, strange events are starting to happen, and it’s all being captured on film.
Perhaps coincidentally, these events began at the same time Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) started interacting with an imaginary friend named Toby. Her mother is convinced it’s just a phase. Dennis, who isn’t sharing the footage with his wife, seems to believe otherwise. Needless to say, this is but one of many instances of disturbed nights, highlighted by unnerving subtleties such as phantom noises and objects that move on their own. As the film progresses, the activity becomes less subtle, and of that, I will say no more. One of the film’s most effective techniques is the placing of a camera on the motor of an oscillating fan; numerous scenes show one continuous shot panning back and forth, revealing first the living room then the kitchen. This makes for some surprisingly effective scares. One in particular, which I will not spoil for you, had everyone in the theater screaming.
The final scene, though technically masterful and undeniably frightening, raises some serious questions about Katie and Kristi as adults. Let’s just say that, on the basis of what the last shot reveals, I’m not convinced either girl would grow up to be as well adjusted as they initially turned out. It’s almost as if they forgot an entire chapter of their lives – or, at least, a significant chunk of it. Such scenes make me wish that Paranormal Activity hadn’t spawned two prequels, that it had been allowed to stand on its own. Paranormal Activity 3 works reasonably well, but it would be nice if the filmmakers heeded this piece of advice: When bad things happen, the greatest terror lies in not knowing why.
Now here’s an interesting side note. The film was directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, the same men that helmed the 2010 documentary Catfish. I enjoyed that film, but like a lot of viewers, I found myself questioning its authenticity. Was it truly a documentary about a suspicious internet romance, or was it a hoax? The fact that their follow-up project was a fictional film made to resemble a documentary only adds fuel to the fire. Amazing, how moviegoers – and filmmakers – have blurred the line between reality and fantasy. When my review for Paranormal Activity was posted in 2009, I received a number of comments from readers. Many were facetious, but a select few seemed convinced that the footage in the movie was real. One person even asked me where more information on the case of Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat could be found. Too bad we now know they’re just movies.
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