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Movie Review: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 Works, Despite the Franchise's Limitations

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As wildly derivative Halloween fare goes, you could do a whole lot worse than the Paranormal Activity movies. Compared to the torture porn antics of the Saw franchise, the three PA films have little gore and on-screen violence, preferring instead to manipulate scares from the whole “found footage” angle—THIS COULD HAPPEN TO YOU.

At their worst, a Paranormal Activity movie can lean too heavily on jump scares/sudden camera obstructions (the equivalent of those internet videos where, if you stare at a picture of a room for long enough, some ghastly demon face jumps into frame); at their best, the series shares a bond with Michael Haneke’s brilliant, unsettling Caché.  Scoff if you must, but look at the facts: like Caché, long stretches of the Paranormal Activities find us scanning the frame, trying to parse through the banality in search of….something.  We shudder in anticipation rather than in action.

Kudos to you, the American public, for voting with your dollar in favor of Paranormal Activity as opposed to Saw‘s grisly charnelhouse.  Sometimes, we get it right.

Paranormal Activity 3, the series’ latest installment, provides more of the same, for better or worse.  I confess I jumped as many times at the scares (earned and otherwise) as I did in Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity 2; despite relative newcomers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (of Catfish fame) taking the directorial reins, these films have the formula down to a science.  It’s all about escalation: take an average family—here, a young mother, her two daughters, and her videographer boyfriend (thus explaining away how a camera ends up in nearly every room)—introduce the suggestion of a problem—one of the girls has an imaginary friend named “Toby.”  No points for guessing his role in the proceedings—and then turn the screws until the violent dénouement.

Even if you anticipate the pattern, the buildup makes it work.  Joost and Schulman get a lot of mileage from creaking footsteps, some half-glimpsed figures, or a door slamming on its own accord because of the audience’s willingness to scare itself over very little.  The directors even introduce a new, and highly effective, gimmick: a camera that pans slowly between kitchen and living room.  Paranormal Activity 3‘s one bravura sequence has a ghostly specter creeping up on an unsuspecting babysitter, and what makes it work—what makes us crawl out of our skin—is waiting for the camera to catch up with the action, and knowing that every slow movement reveals some greater problem.

More importantly, these tiny jolts lower our defenses.  We get so used to the “easter egg” frights that we don’t expect most of the big-league horrors—entire rooms destroyed in an instant, invisible entities tossing people around like rag dolls—of the second half.

The lone problem with Paranormal Activity 3, however, is a strong case of “sequelitis.”  As effective as much of the film is, the movie just doesn’t have that power of the New that Paranormal Activity boasted; I can sense this franchise reaching its limits.  The pseudo-verisimilitude of the “documentary footage” isn’t as fresh; I call bulls**t every time a character makes sure to bring his/her camera with them when fleeing a monster dead-set on total destruction.

Furthermore, rather than examine new families beset by spirits (considering most characters from PA 1 & 2 are dead), we get a prequel showing how a demon latched onto the previous films’ protagonists Katie and Krista (played as children by Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown and in the opening sequence by PA stars Katie Featherston and Sprague Grayden), and, Lord, do the explanations get silly.  A last-act witches coven, while nicely reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby, adds unnecessary complications to a simple ghost story.  I normally shudder at the mention of the word “reboot,” but maybe it’s time to drop the mythology and move on to a new ghost.

And really, isn’t that all we care about?  A cute young couple, a tow-headed child or two, and an evil that wants them dead.  That’s the horror genre in a nutshell, and Paranormal Activity 3 works best when it sticks to the fundamentals.

The star of Paramount’s Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack is the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track; it’s so finely tuned and receptive.  We get a range of shock effects, from dim ambient sounds to great roars, and the lossless sound reproduces them with great fidelity.  The HD picture is a little muddy, but it should look semi-crappy; the conceit is, this is a camera from 1988.

The most egregious element involves the supplements.  Other than the ten-minute-longer “Unrated director’s cut,” we get the “Lost Tapes.”  Problem 1: This feature runs about three minutes long.  Problem 2: It’s useless.  We get a silly commercial promoting lead Christopher Nicholas Smith’s videography business, and a montage of Smith trying to scare on-screen girlfriend Lauren Bittner.  That’s it.  Want deleted scenes showcasing additional demon interactions (the theatrical trailer—which isn’t included on the Blu-ray—actually has many such moments)?  Tough.  Want some behind-the-scenes peeks at the creation of the film’s deceptively sneaky special effects?  Get a job, hippie!  You’ll eat the movie and you’ll like it, and I don’t want to hear another word from you.

Paranormal Activity 3 works, even if the franchise’s seams are showing.  One hopes the Blu-ray would give fans more to chew on, but alas! ‘tis not to be.

The film streets on January 24th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s page listing.