How long does it take for the novelty to wear off on an ingenious supernatural thriller? A question as old as that one about the number of licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop. Some may argue that innovation hardly stretches into the sequel, but I actually thought “Paranormal Activity 2” was equal to (if not better than) the 2009 sleeper hit “Paranormal Activity,” and that one was a pretty outstanding surprise itself. But what continues to astound me is just how polarizing the response has been among viewers; you love it or you hate it. I don’t think I have never heard a single person who arrived squarely in the middle of this issue.
Me being a person with a great appreciation for both PA1 and PA2, I believe there are quite a few reasons that these films work as a whole. The way I see it, they prompt the same sense of paranoia and insecurity not different to a young child being left home alone at night for the first time. In simple terms, it is not what you see that frightens you, but is instead what you THINK you see that arouses fear. The most infuriating yet valuable type of fear is the kind involving silence; the kind of fear in which the viewer is left in a state of both uncertainty and dread. Through abundant usage of silence and large spaces of deceptively banal nothingness, I think “Paranormal Activity” does a magnificent job of building tension in scene after scene.
Before 2009, the “Saw” series used to be the big Halloween event film that horror fanatics were lining up for. If you read my review for 2010’s “Saw: The Final Chapter,” you must be aware that I really abhor that series and believe them to be cynical exercises that test how many times audiences will pay to see a new collection of elaborate death contraptions. It further proves the theory that moviegoers love pain and torture as long as it is not happening to them, but for me, there has to be a sense of gravity and urgency to all the bloody killings, or else why should I care? “Paranormal Activity” did not disgust horror fans with blood and guts, but instead relied on the most basic facets of human anxiety to lead its way.
Now that I have finished lavishing praise where credit is due, let me blow your mind. “Paranormal Activity 3” did very little for me. Perhaps the once-inspired novelty has finally worn off. Perhaps I have grown accustomed to its tricks. Perhaps it could be the influx of found-footage movies that is finally getting to me (including the recent PA knockoff, “Apollo 18”). But this time around, everything seems way too obvious and not nearly as enjoyable as it was twice before. Say what you will about PA2 being an unnecessary sequel, but at least it knew how to cleverly interweave its story with the first and still delivered the right amount of scares. “Paranormal Activity 3,” while sporadically entertaining, doesn’t contribute anything new to the mythology of the series, lacks the cunning prudence in setting up its surprises and ultimately seems kind of pointless.
Going further back in the paranormal timeline, the film mostly takes place in Carlsbad, California circa 1988. Katie and Kristi, the two sisters, are still children and video cameras in those days tested the limits of the term ‘handheld.’ They are living under the care of their mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) and her boyfriend Daniel (Brian Boland) when strange things start to happen all around the house, like weird growling noises coming from out of nowhere. Strange things soon evolve into unfathomably peculiar things (objects moving by themselves) and reach the summit of bat-sh** insanity before the credits roll. We the audience know that this is the work of a supernatural entity, though the family seems new to this bizarre phenomena.
All of this activity occurs right around the same time that the younger child Kristi starts acknowledging the presence of an invisible companion called Toby. Of course, everybody in the audience knows that Toby has got to be the evil spirit behind all the ruckus, but the family views him as a creation of the young child’s mind and think that she is going through an imaginary friend phase. That’s the occult for ya; always popping up at the most convenient moments in family development.
So Daniel, a professional wedding video editor, sets up cameras and tripods all over the house to document the activity. One is in the bedroom shared by Kristi and Katie, one stays in the parents’ room and one is mounted on top of a modified oscillating fan to pan between the living room and the kitchen (this is actually a pretty cool trick when used properly).
If you have seen either of the first two films, you know the drill and you are likely prepared for what directions the film is inevitably headed towards. Everybody in my theater was, and they loved every second of it. Nevertheless, this concept has now officially been milked dry. It is the same old found-footage setup with the same old bag of tricks, complete with the same old freaking ending that I cannot stand in these found-footage pictures (you know the kind). Also, it continues to seem weird that this family always documents the supernatural happenings on camcorders. You would think that somewhere in time, either Kristi or Katie would realize that they are setting themselves up for a mess whenever they press ‘record.’ Have they ever thought that maybe it’s the cameras that irritate the spirit and send it into a conniption? Hey, it’s as logical as any other reason.
Instead of being startled or taken by surprise by any of the scares that were thrown my way, I was actually more fascinated by how some of them were set up. Every “Paranormal Activity” has had a shoestring budget to work with and PA3 has been reported to have only $5 million in its production. But with meager funds, the filmmakers have created a few interesting practical effects. One of my favorites was a childlike figure concealed in a blanket that suddenly disappears and causes the sheet to fold back in on itself. Another cool one involved every item in the kitchen vanishing with one movement of the camera, only to come back seconds later by pure nature. Creative these may be, but whether or not they pass as creepy is debatable.
Regardless of what I have to say, “Paranormal Activity 3” will undeniably make tons of money over the weekend and will probably inspire yet another sequel before it leaves theaters. I am not quite sure where else the series can head from here, other than maybe Paramecium Activity where the characters are all unicellular organisms and are being tormented by a supernatural force that haunts the petry dish in which they live. After all, the series is continuing to go further back in time with each new installment. And as long as people still show up for tickets eager to jump out of their seats, this activity won’t be retreating anytime soon.
NOTE: I was a little perplexed when I first read that “Paranormal Activity 3” was rated R “for some violence, language, BRIEF SEXUALITY and DRUG USE,” especially after hearing that this one centered on children. Upon seeing the film, wow, the brief sexuality and drug use was totally forced in for no particular reason at all. It doesn’t advance the story, nor is it even a noteworthy scene in its own right.