Paranormal Activity 3
Director : Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman
Screenplay : Christopher Landon (based on the film Paranormal Activity by Oren Peli)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Christopher Nicholas Smith (Dennis), Lauren Bittner (Julie), Chloe Csengery (Young Katie), Jessica Tyler Brown (Young Kristi Rey), Dustin Ingram (Randy Rosen), Maria Olsen (Creepy Woman), Hallie Foote (Grandma Lois)
As the third part of a triptych that, given the enormous opening weekend at the box office, will surely become a tetraptych by this time next year, Paranormal Activity 3 has even less opportunity than its immediate predecessor to do anything new. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who gained immediate notoriety last year with their festival-favorite is-it-or-isn’t-it-real? “documentary” Catfish (2010), clearly understand that no one walking into the theater will expect (or probably even desire) blazing originality, therefore they have designed all the film’s best moments as riffs and elaborations on what we’ve already seen before. The film is, once again, a compilation of supposedly “found footage” that tells the story of a haunting, and it draws on both the focused simplicity of the first film’s single camera and the wider scope of the second film’s multi-camera setup.
Returning screenwriter Christopher Landon (he was one of three cowriters on the second film in the series) takes us further back in time to the late 1980s, thus making Paranormal Activity 3 a prequel to the previous prequel. Now we are introduced to sisters Katie (who was haunted as an adult in the first film) and Kristi Rey (who was haunted as an adult in the second) as children living in northern California. The girls (played by Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown, respectively) live in a large, open-design, multi-level house with their mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) and her boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). The actors are all convincing in their natural blandness (the girls are particularly good), although there are times when their characters behave in ways that are highly questionable, even by horror film standards (I had a hard time believing that Dennis would remain so nonchalant about being in the house even after its violent haunting had been made readily apparent, and there is simply no way that Dennis’s partner would consent to playing “Blood Mary” in a dark bathroom with Katie after having seen what he’s seen on video).
From a purely narrative standpoint, it’s the same ol’, same ol’, with things going increasingly bump in the night, building to a tense, chaotic climax in which characters will surely die sudden, horrible deaths (since we know that Katie and Kristi will survive, any threat to them is purely emotional, rather than physical). As each of the films must narratively justify how and why people’s lives are being constantly recorded with videocameras, it is little surprise that Dennis is a professional videographer who has an editing bay set up in the garage and a battery of cameras at his disposal. Since the year is 1988, all the cameras are old school VHS, rather than the higher resolution digital cameras of the previous two films, and the idea that we’re watching low fidelity helps draw us into the idea that we’re watching the real deal (although I will avoid being a technical pedant and noting that the whole film should have been in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio--whoops, just did).
Joost and Schulman also devise some clever new means of tempting us with the unseen, the best being an oscillating camera set up downstairs using a rigged fan that slowly moves from the kitchen to the living room, creating a nerve-wracking back-and-forth of expanding the scope of our vision and then denying it. The surveillance-like movement guarantees the jitters in the way it slowly reveals space and what might be lurking in it while hiding previously seen space, thus making it ripe for intrusion. As with the previous films, familiar suburban architecture is paramount in building suspense, with gaping stairwells playing a crucial role and wide open spaces creating as much visual tension as dark corners (I particularly liked the way the camera set-up in the parents’ bedroom created dual spaces by focusing on both the slightly cracked door leading out to the hallway and a closet mirror that shows the space behind the camera itself).
Of course, given the increasing familiarity (some might say “exhaustion”) of these aesthetic devices, it is almost unavoidable that Paranormal Activity 3 will feel like a slight letdown; we may not consciously want anything new, but we still want to be surprised and shocked in the same manner that Oren Peli’s original did two years ago when the conceit was brand new. That is, of course, impossible at this point without radically departing from the series’ defining elements, a move that is always fraught with danger, especially in the horror genre. Given that the techniques still work, with only moderately diminishing effects, I imagine that a fourth stab at this ever-evolving storyline will be even more of the same.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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