THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3"
I wonder if they shot this on Beta or VHS.
There are only about seven or eight horror movies that have legitimately scared me, and Paranormal Activity was one of them. I went into last year's sequel with high hopes, only to be disappointed by the carbon copy quality of it. With Paranormal Activity 3, I went in with my expectations lowered. It's a slight improvement over the second installment, yet its quite noticeable flaws also illustrate just how good the original was.
After a short prologue designed to give series poster girl Katie Featherston a few minutes of welcome screen time, we flash back to 1988, when young Katie (Chloe Csengery) and her sister Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) move into a new home with their mom Julie (Lauren Bitner) and her boyfriend Dennis (Chris Smith). Kristi has an imaginary friend named Toby who seems to be encouraging odd behavior in her. As it turns out, Dennis is a wedding videographer, so he sets up a bunch of his VHS camcorders around the house to catch some of the strange activity that Kristi is engaging in. If you're familiar with this series, you undoubtedly know that his cameras capture an assortment of frightening, unexplainable things.
The purpose of Paranormal Activity 3 is to show how the demon spirit latched on to Kristi and Katie, an event alluded to in the prior installments. Was that a good idea? I'm not so sure. I tend to be a believer that unexplained evil is more terrifying than evil that is explained. Then again, the original didn't leave a lot of room for a sequel, so the filmmakers had nowhere to go but backwards.
In fairness, there are some effective scares here. Screenwriter Christopher Landon (Disturbia) and co-directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost (Catfish) come up with a few clever new twists. There's a moment in which Kristi walks to the corner of the frame and carries on a one-sided conversation with Toby that is distinctly eerie. The use of a camera mounted on top of a rotating fan also creates a chilling effect as you wonder what will happen to a character as it pans away, or what you will find when it pans back. A couple other scenes definitely illicit jumps, as things happen abruptly and in ways you don't anticipate. Whereas Paranormal Activity 2 gave us more of the same, this third entry at least tries to introduce some freshness.
At the same time, PA3 lacks the elegant simplicity of the original. It feels the need to go bigger and more elaborate with the scares, and that actually kind of works against the movie as a whole. The original played off of basic fears: a loud noise coming from downstairs, a body being pulled from a bed, the thought that an evil force can get you but you can't get it. Some of the scare scenes here are more complex, which makes you more aware of the filmmaking itself. With Oren Peli's original, I forgot I was watching a fictionalized story and felt as though I was viewing something real. That's not the case anymore.
I think that Featherston and co-star Micah Sloat don't get enough credit for what they brought to the first movie. The actors conveyed a realistic sense of mounting fear. The more dramatic the otherworldly events became, the more desperate and irrational they got. It created the effect of two helpless people struggling to survive against attacks from some unseen, evil force. The performances in PA3 aren't as convincing, and the characters haven't been developed to the same extent. This especially becomes a problem at the end. In Paranormal Activity, everything built to the final moment when the battle between spirit and human ended once and for all. Since the new movie is a prequel, it necessarily ends on an arbitrary note. What happens is geared more toward creating connective tissue with the other movies than it is with providing a sensical, coherent conclusion to this movie.
Again, there are enough jump-out-of-your-seat moments in Paranormal Activity 3 to make it worth a look if you're a fan of the franchise – and if that's primarily all you seek. It's difficult to deny that the film delivers some honest-to-goodness jolts. I just wish the series had more unity than it does. No one expected the first one to be the massive success that it ultimately became, so now the filmmakers are in the position of having to retrofit a whole mythology for Katie and Kristi. That's an awkward task, at best. If PA3 had been a stand-alone project, it might have been able to develop the idea of a child communicating with a demon spirit and turn it into a classic cinematic nightmare. Instead, it's little more than a decent-but-unremarkable sequel to a landmark in the genre.
( 1/2 out of four)
Paranormal Activity 3 is rated R for some violence, language, brief sexuality and drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 25 minutes.