Paranormal Activity 3 (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulamn, 2011)
I was a big, big fan of the first two Paranormal Activity movies. The first one dropped like a bomb from out of nowhere—it was one of the first found-footage films since The Blair Witch Project that actually looked like a found footage movie (probably because of Oren Peli’s lack of budget). The second was slicker, but it went places, emotionally, that the first hadn’t dared to go, and it succeeded in doing something that no movie has done to me since Candyman twenty years previous—it scared the pants off me in a crowded theater. So of course I had high hopes for the third installment in the franchise, and the first trailer that came out seemed pretty nifty. How much did I like Joost and Schulman (Catfish)’s first entry in the series? I’ll put it this way: I’ve had Paranormal Activity 4 on my Netflix Instant queue since the day it appeared there…but I haven’t watched it yet.
NOTE: the plot synopsis necessarily contains spoilers for the first film in the series. Proceed with caution if necessary.
Set in 1988, Paranormal Activity 3 purports to tell the story of how poor Katie (Up All Night‘s Chloe Csengery) and her little sister Kristi (Wiener Dog Nationals‘ Jessica Tyler Brown) first met up with the demon that has haunted Katie throughout the series. The movie focuses more on Katie and Kristi’s mother, Julie (Bride Wars‘ Lauren Bittner) and her boyfriend Dennis (Little Children‘s Christopher Nicholas Smith), as well as Dennis’ friend Randy (Sky High‘s Dustin Ingram), a videographer Dennis brings in to help document the weird things going on in the house when they start getting out of hand. We first learn something is amiss when Kristi started talking to an imaginary friend she has named Toby. While that doesn’t seem out of the ordinary at the beginning, Dennis starts to realize that Toby may not be entirely imaginary after an earthquake—he captured a few frames of video that night where the settling dust outlined a human-shaped figure, otherwise invisible. It’s at this point he calls Randy in, and the movie begins to look like PA2, with cameras everywhere in the house. It would be a spoiler to say whether or not that mystery is ever revealed in this film (but as I mentioned in the first paragraph, there is a PA4, and a “related” movie, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, came and went in January 2014 with almost no fanfare).
The main thing about PA3 that contrasts with the first two entries in the series is how forgettable it is; the setup is basically the same, the execution is the same, the only differences are the actors and directors. And both come off here as pale imitations of the original. (There is also some debate over whether the final sequence of this film breaks canon. I originally thought so—actually, I think the phrase that went through my head as I was watching is “this makes no friggin’ sense given the first two movies”—but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise by someone with some evidence.) Still, for all that, it’s not a terrible movie; it has the weight of the two movies that came before it shoving it down in my estimation. Had it been a standalone Satanic Panic movie, I probably would have liked it more; it’s not The House of the Devil, but then few things are. Still, I would have liked to see these directors—who have been noted widely for being so avant-garde in Catfish—to do something, anything, here that defied convention. **