In a lot of ways “Paranormal Activity 3” really shouldn’t work. It’s the third movie in an astonishingly popular series, and it has long since replaced “Saw” as the official franchise for the month of October each year. The third in a trilogy is also when the series starts running out of creative juices and becomes bound by an increasingly aging formula. Maybe it’s time to move on to the next big thing in horror movies, right?
Not quite. Despite the inescapable feeling of déjà vu, “Paranormal Activity 3” still has the power to scare and unnerve viewers, and I knew exactly what I was doing when I saw it at night. This one comes from the makers of “Catfish,” a documentary I meant to see by now, but anyway. They follow the familiar setup, and it still has a number of jump out of your seat moments that shows there is life left in this franchise.
Whereas “Paranormal Activity 2” was a prequel and a sequel, this one is a flat out prequel which takes place 18 years before the events of the original. Sisters Katie and Kristi, played by Katie Featherston and Sprague Grayden in the previous films, are seen here as children who live with their mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) and stepdad Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). Things get weird however when Kristi gets an invisible friend named “Toby,” and strange occurrences develop in their home with increasing volatility.
Since this prequel takes place back in 1988, the filmmakers work with seemingly prehistoric technology such as video cameras and VHS tapes. Part of it serves as a needless reminder of how Betamax got its ass kicked years ago. While the technology is limited compared to what the characters had at their disposal in the previous films, this forces everyone here to get creative with what they have.
Once again the man of the house (it’s always the man) sets up a barrage of video cameras in various rooms to figure out what’s going on in order to put a stop to it. The only disadvantage is that the VHS tapes only allow for 6 hours of recording at the most. But somehow the spirits do make their appearance before the tape runs out which is rather convenient for everyone involved.
The one new thing in “Paranormal Activity 3” is that Dennis comes up with the idea of attaching one video camera to the base of a fan. As the camera veers from side to side, we have another reason to be tense about what we’re watching. Will there be something on the other side that will jump out at us? This quickly becomes a clever device which distinguishes this film from its predecessors.
I do, however, have to say though that “Paranormal Activity 3” got off to a shaky start. There were a bunch of cheap scares which (whether they worked or not) had me worrying that this entry would be overrun with them. While they may have provided the audience with a good jolt, it made me wonder if the series was going to descend into self-parody. Once that happens, the series might as well end. Fortunately things straighten out as the happenings inside the house become increasingly unrelenting in their viciousness.
There are many moments that had my hair standing on end. We see furniture moving around almost by itself, a character running into something that isn’t visible and someone’s hair getting grabbed. “Paranormal Activity 3” may seem like business as usual, but this business is still producing terrifying moments just as things start looking old. Like the previous entries, I’m not entirely sure how the filmmakers pulled off certain special effects (the one at the very end is a very painful shocker), and I don’t want to know for fear of breaking the illusion.
I recently watched “The Thing” which was a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 film. It reminded me of the problems with prequels in general in that you know who is going to live and die, and the suspense gets diluted as a result. The advantage “Paranormal Activity 3” has is that while we know the little girls will survive and live on in future installments, we aren’t sure of the adults’ fate. Katie and Kristi only reveal so much about what happened to them as children in the second film, so we are left to guess if any adults hanging around these kids will ever live to see the next day. Had the girls revealed the exact chronology of events, this prequel would have been screwed from the get go.
Many critics have now had their fill of the “Paranormal Activity” films it seems, but the formula behind them still works to a very strong effect. That invisible spirit still can scare the crap out of me, and it made me look forward to “Paranormal Activity 4.” Granted, Paramount Pictures and Oren Peli can only keep this franchise going for so long, but they have made it this far without losing any of the power which made the original so damn scary in the first place. Here’s hoping the filmmakers don’t trip over themselves in the future. We all know what happened to “Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows.”
By the way, you’ll still a Bloody Mary (the drink I mean) after this is over. Watch the movie and you’ll see what I mean.