Review: ‘Paranormal Activity 3′


1. The premise and construction of the "Paranormal Activity" movies, once novel and even revolutionary, has reached the point that Friedberg/Seltzer are destined to make a "parody" movie about them, if they haven't already. All the tropes have been established: Long periods of silent home video, the clock speeding up to indicate the passage of time, the constant complaints of the characters about someone turning the damn camera off (and honestly, this still isn't done enough), the two bland sisters who are apparently some sort of portals to hell, or something. We've seen it all before. I'm not necessarily sure that's all that terrible of a thing. After all, it's still pretty scary. Actually, scratch that: It's still really scary. This is a horror film concept that may live forever.

2. It reminds me of an interview I once did with Michael Schur, the showrunner for "Parks & Recreation" (which I happen to find the funniest show on television). I asked him if he worried that the "mockumentary" format would come across as too derivative of "The Office," the previous show Schur had worked on. "Not at all; honestly, it's just a device," he said. "I think it's the best way to tell a story on television." I kind of feel the same way about the "Paranormal Activity" movies. Forget the increasingly stretched and ludicrous mythology, or the tortured excuses the characters keep using to justify the fact that they're filming everything. (Seriously, though: Put the camera down, people.There is a monster trying to kill you.) All that is beside the point. What makes these films work is the format themselves. This "found" footage format, frankly, is the most efficient BOO!-delivering device I've seen in years. You know it's coming, you know it's about to happen ... and it still makes you jump, every time. Every dang time.

3. So all you need to keep making these movies interesting -- and even improve them -- is by coming up with new ways to deliver the "Boo!"s. I'm happy (and by "happy," I mean "hiding under my seat") to say that "Paranormal Activity 3" is the best in the franchise yet. Its story is stilted and dumb, as if that matters. The sisters from the first two films, before they do whatever it is they do in the first two films, discover a box of old VHS tapes from when they were kids. Thus: '80s movie! The sisters Katie and Kristi live with their mother and her boyfriend, a likable sort who (get this) films weddings for a living and, helpfully, is obsessed with having old Camcorders everywhere. He starts to hear some bumps in the night, and strange things start moving around by themselves and, well, you can probably figure it out from there. It's the same thing.

4. What makes this one newer, and better, are the little twists and wrinkles directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (whose only other film, "Catfish," I liked far, far less than this) add to this installment. Some of their ideas are so smart that it seems silly these movies haven't done them before. In a house with kids, of course someone would play the "Bloody Mary" game (when you turn the lights off and say "Bloody Mary" three times into a mirror, a ghost is supposed to appear), and we would get the requisite "Boo!" after extended, endless seconds of darkness. The movie also somehow, almost audaciously, dusts off the old "attractive teenage babysitter alone in a haunted house" cliche, and it somehow gets away with it. I'm telling you: "Boo!" delivery device. Their most ingenious idea, though, is to have the camera-obsessed boyfriend attach his Camcorder to the top of an oscillating fan. This leads to several excruciating scenes in which the camera, in agonizingly slow fashion, moves left .... and right ... as we cringe waiting to see what's going to pop into frame. The scenes are difficult to watch in the best possible way; I can't believe the other two films didn't think of it.

5. Again, the story is kind of pointless. I don't care about those sisters, and I never have. The resolution is ultimately sort of disappointing, though it does have a certain amusing male-panic subtext to it. But the film is also improved by, finally, more appealing actors. It's one thing to cast people who seem like normal regular bland folk; it's another to have them doing shrill "realistic" screams the whole movie. Here, though, Christopher Nicholas Smith as the stepdad and (especially) Dustin Ingram as his slacker video buddy are both believable and enjoyable to watch. I wouldn't say their characters meant anything to me, but I bought them in the parts, and that's a legitimate upgrade for this franchise. But mostly: I just spent the whole movie covering my eyes, opening them right before what I knew was going to happen happened ... and then shutting them again and curling up. These movies, man. They get me every time.

Grade: B