Theatrical Review: In what’s become an annual Halloween tradition, Paranormal Activity 3 keeps the demon-haunted series bumping and jolting along like a well-oiled scare machine. It’s all very familiar by now, but if the hype and novelty’s worn off, the movie’s ratcheted-up tension and dread still get the job done.
Having creepily chronicled the “true” and tragic tales of grownup Katie (in Paranormal Activity 1) and Kristi (in PA 2), the found-footage phenomenon goes back to the sisters’ childhood for Paranormal Activity 3.
Via VHS tapes from 1988, the new film reveals the earliest contact of the young girls (Chloe Csengery as Katie, Jessica Tyler Brown as Kristi) with the malevolent entity that would wreak such havoc on their lives decades later.
All the usual Paranormal Activity elements are here: the clueless adults (Lauren Bittner as Mom, Christopher Nicholas Smith as her new live-in boyfriend), the menacing crawlspaces and storage areas, and the nocturnal sleepwalking, door slamming, and kitchen rearranging. Plus a very unnerving singing toy bear and an “invisible friend” named “Toby.”
(And of course the gimmicky obsession–this time from the wedding-videographer boyfriend–to film everything. Always. Even when the chaotic course of events have viewers screaming, “Why in heaven’s name are you still videotaping?!”)
Each successive Paranormal Activity film also peels away yet another layer of mystery around these sisters, explaining why and how they became literally bedeviled. In number three, the demon, while still mostly invisible (there’s a nifty visual gag with ceiling dust), is much more of an overt presence in the narrative.
That may satisfy the hunger of fans who want each movie to share more information and show bigger stuff, but it also sacrifices some of the darkly delicious unknowns surrounding the earlier entries. (By Paranormal 5 or 6 they’ll be showing the demon hanging out in Demonland with its Demon Family and Demon Pals and Pets.)
However, the Paranormal Activity films—R-rated for language only, never gore—have become increasingly better-crafted, more tightly told. Paranormal Activity 3 is directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, whose (mostly true) “documentary” Catfish last year was marketed as a sort of Paranormal Activity scare fest (it absolutely is not in the slightest).
The filmmakers know their way around the faux-documentary style (and have lots of practice showing people watching video), but they also do a fine job with what has become the supernatural gimcrackery of these movies.
The Paranormal Activity scare formula has been honed to a precise science (stare and stare and stare at this nighttime scene until something odd, disturbing, jolting, or downright terrifying happens), but Joost and Schulman execute it perfectly. A bit with a “fan pan” camera roving back and forth ad nauseum keeps twisting your tense apprehension a little tighter—you’re tempted to laugh at the banal repetition and obvious misdirection, right up until the filmmakers spring the trap you know is coming.
And that’s the point of the Paranormal Activity films by now: We’ve seen these tricks several times already, and we still have a ball sitting there cowering, hands gripping the armrests, ready to be scared. Though what was once special and surprising has become routine, Paranormal Activity 3 proves that when done well, even the predictable works to great, perhaps even comfortingly reliable, “cover your eyes” effect.