The first Paranormal Activity was a legitimate phenomenon. Thanks to an innovative "Demand It!" campaign that captured the imagination of horror fans across the country, the film spawned a widely-disliked kinda-prequel, and now a full-blown, serious prequel that goes all the way back to the 1980s. Many critics and viewers really hated 2, and have called 3 a return to form, but for this critic, the series is a standard bit of slightly diminishing returns, starting with the four-out-of-five-star original and sliding to this three-star trilogy capper.
After a brief bookend to get Katie Featherston into the movie (no complaints here), the action leaps back to a time when tapes were in. Sisters Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) live with their mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner) and her new beau Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), who has a gig recording wedding videos. They've just moved into a new home, and Dennis is hearing noises. When an earthquake rocks the house while he's recording and he sees something unusual in the playback, he sets up a number of cameras all over the house to see if he can catch more evidence. Surprise: he does.
The original Paranormal Activity was thrilling because the possibilities were endless. When the lights went out and the on-screen captions came up, it was easy to see any number of imaginary scare factors in the corners of the screen. The biggest problem with Paranormal Activity 3 is that it's confined to the conventions the other two films have already offered. The audience at the "Demand It!" screening of the original just a couple years ago moaned with collective concern when the camera's timer sped up to show several hours passing; when something similar happens in the new movie, the audience only gave a murmur of recognition.
Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are perfectly fitted to this kind of material, and although they've hardly reinvented the wheel, they have devised a few new techniques for the audience's amusement. Dennis breaks down an oscillating fan and nails the camera to it, creating tense panning shots across the living room and kitchen. In the room that Katie and Kristi share, Dennis' tripod placement puts a major source of ghostly disturbances in a blind spot, allowing the audience's imagination to concoct whatever's behind the frame. The script, on the other hand, stumbles occasionally when it comes to the premise. At one point, Julie becomes frustrated with the cameras and claims she never wants to hear about them again, but curiously doesn't make Dennis take any of them down, and a few questions (who straightens the furniture?) go unanswered.
Joost and Schulman are fond of slow-burn tension, but they let it go on too long. Very little happens for most of the movie's running time, which may leave an audience already familiar with the series' tricks of the trade waiting for the film to pull out the big guns. Ultimately, by writing backwards and adhering to their formula, the series has become less about true tension and more about skill in execution. In that "Demand It!" screening of the original, I remember the audience (myself included) practically yelling at Micah as he put up a ladder and ventured into the attic crawlspace -- he was going somewhere the audience did not want him to go. With Paranormal Activity 3, the journey may be an effective one, but the writers and directors never quite take us anywhere we haven't been already.
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