The “Paranormal Activity” franchise’s greatest advantage is probably going to be its greatest curse further down the line — the element of surprise. Backed on the gimmick that it’s authentic ‘found-footage’ of sinister ghostly happenings around an extended family and their homes, three installments in, I’m not altogether sure they can hold it together for further ones down the line. They’ve squeezed all the creative juice they can out of the concept — but ah, what delicious juice.
The first film’s underdog status is a story well-told, as is the mediocrity of its successor. Paramount wisely picked two total curveballs to helm “Activity 3”, the makers of the potentially-fake documentary “Catfish”, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. This is a film buzzing with creative energy and sly sleight-of-hand, with tension only ramping up as Schulman and Joost unleash one crazy set-piece after the other. There’s no household object here that isn’t fair game — that the malicious spirits in this film will not try and turn against the characters (and ultimately, the audience).
The film traces the first two film’s main characters, Katie and Kristi, back to their sisterly childhood roots in 1988. In those films their sinister childhood happenings were only hinted at, here they’re fully depicted. The footage is “caught” by way of their mother’s videographer boyfriend, who senses something isn’t right and sets up cameras in rooms all over the house. Just as the first two films did (or should have, in theory, the second being a failure) we ease into the proceedings by way of cheap, self-conscious jump-scares. But as the nights go on and on, the happenings intensify. The last 15 minutes of this film are pure, undiluted terror, with a capital T.
“Paranormal Activity 3” serves also as a satisfying counter-argument for many things I, as a viewer, tend to scream at the screen in horror films — “Why won’t you get out of the house?!”, “Don’t go in the closet!”, etc. The directors, clearly very conscious of these genre trappings, work them into the plot in very clever ways. And I can’t emphasize this to you, the reader, nearly enough — catch this on a late weekend night, with a packed audience. Part of what makes these films such unique experiences is how responsive the audience is to them – shouting, heckling, and screaming all through the running time.
Part of my deep respect for this franchise is that it trains the viewer to look for even the tiniest changes in a given scene — lulling us into a constant sense of unease and squeaminess. These movies are proof that you don’t need dangling intestines or crazed chainsaw-wielders to strike deep fear in the hearts of moviegoers. And deep fear it is — “Paranormal Activity 3” is the best horror-movie experience I’ve had since I caught the original, in September 2009. All bets are off for this one, as is my hat. See what I did there? B+