February 24, 2012


Sometimes, a spookhouse is just a spookhouse. Creators of those Halloween haunted houses that spring up every year sometimes try to attach a story or characters to them, but that’s not the purpose of their existence. They’re here to give us some old-fashioned jolts: the kind that come when a guy in a mask leaps out of the shadows shrieking like a loon. We jump, we cry out, and we giggle at the relived realization that nothing bad actually happened. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The Paranormal Activity movies exist as unfiltered embodiments of that ethos. Just as certain comedies can be gauged solely on how often they make us laugh, so too does this found-footage horror series live and die by the amount of popcorn flung reflexively in the air. The first film raised that equation to near-art. The second tried to regurgitate rather than recreate and suffered accordingly. Now comes Paranormal Activity 3, a film that more or less rights the ship even as it extends the dubious premise of ongoing (and unnecessary) sequels. Hit the jump for my full review.

paranormal-activity-3-movie-image-5Like the two films that preceded it, PA3 adopts a resolute structure. Cameras placed throughout a suburban home record the presence of an unquiet spirit who proceeds to menace the occupants in various low-tech ways. The cameras generate instant suspense since they restrict our view, and the spook’s inevitable manifestations can come from literally anywhere to create the desired effect. At its worse, the tactic feels like a revamped Where’s Waldo, as we try to guess the exact onscreen spot where something scary will happen. At its best, however, it genuinely catches us by surprise, creating a simple but visceral experience that undemanding audience members should thoroughly enjoy.

The storyline attempts to broaden and explain the series’ overall mythology… sometimes to its detriment. We return to the childhood of the two sisters featured in PA 1 and 2. They live with their mother and her boyfriend, a nice video photographer who notices something odd while reviewing footage he shot in the home. Convinced that something Not of This Earth is about, he sets up cameras throughout the house — especially in the girls’ bedroom, where an “imaginary friend” has been making an appearance — and inadvertently makes things much worse. It’s nothing new, of course, and the attempt to shed light on past events backfires more than it should. The enigmatic hints of the first two films didn’t need any fleshing out, and doing so here only diminishes its effectiveness. The final revelations descend into active cheese, with a few visual surprises covering up some truly preposterous assumptions.  Paranormal Activity 3 would have done better coming up with something more original… or at least letting the mystery alone.

paranormal-activity-3-blu-ray-coverOn the other hand, the film delivers something the previous two movies couldn’t: likable protagonists. They’re thinly developed, but possess an innate kindness lacking in the self-absorbed douches of the earlier films. The presence of the two little girls further bolsters our sympathies; unlike the baby in Part 2, they can articulate their emotions, and their lack of understanding about the forces surrounding them accentuates the thrills admirably. And at the end of the day, nothing else really matters. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman focus most of their attention on delivering the shocks with effectiveness and regularity, a task they succeed at surprisingly often. They also infuse a sense of humor into the proceedings, defying the po-faced self-regard that might have claimed the franchise.

Paramount has clearly set up the franchise as a successor to Saw, with yearly installments eliciting a fast buck every Halloween. That’s not a recipe for quality, but if this third entry is any indication, the decline will be far slower than Saw‘s and leave us with some reasonably decent scares in the bargain. Considering Paranormal Activity 3’s intended purpose, we shouldn’t expect anything better.

The Blu-ray is fairly sparse, devoted mainly to both the theatrical and “director’s cut” versions of the film. A “lost tapes” feature helps further the found-footage premise, but otherwise, the disc is pretty sparse. A second disc contains the DVD version of the director’s cut and a digital version of the same.

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