Paranormal Activity 3 is a victim of its past success. The original was perfect for what it was: a low budget horror release that relied on a camcorder POV to tell a story that blended human incompetence when it came to the paranormal with minute by minute tension leading up to its chilling ending (which is spoiled in the original theatrical trailer!). A year later a sequel arrived and it only succeeded in offering a greater predilection for voyeurism with multiple security cameras. This third installment isn’t a sequel but a prequel (Paranormal Activity 2 was as well) that regresses further into the past to September 1988, a month where Guns N’ Roses and Bobby McFerrin were topping the music charts with “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, respectively.
PA3 opens briefly in 2005 and 2006 thereby giving face time to the stalwart starlets Katie Featherstone and Sprague Grayden, who play sisters Katie and Kristi. In one short scene Katie delivers boxes of old home movies, which later go missing after an apparent break-in. Soon after we are watching footage captured from Sept. 1988 when Katie (now played by Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) are little girls living with their mom, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). Dennis is a videographer who shoots and edits wedding videos. Holding onto a video camera as if his life depended on it, he does the only thing that comes natural when he suspects an odd presence in the house: He sets up cameras in multiple rooms and records everything in six-hour increments (stupid EP VHS tapes!). Such action allows us to see how the girls are first haunted.
Knowing the template and how everything works, it’s difficult to feign interest in a sequel that attempts to try new ways to scare viewers. The sticking point is how the sequel/prequel is framed with the home movies. The illusion of “found footage” is gone. If anything this is footage that has gone missing. So who is exactly playing the footage for our amusement? Plus, the footage is too clean and free of imperfections to have been shot on VHS tape. (As it turns out, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman shot it in 1080p color.) Add to that, the way the footage is assembled is absurd. No way can we believe that videographer David had time to make minor edits to the Sept. 1988 home movies and output them to a new tape.
Most patrons venturing to have some cheap thrills will be oblivious to these observations; they just want to be scared. Still, there is an underlining sense of obligation when it comes to this series. The first one was a good scare and PA3 follows the same general principle with “boo!” moments to give audiences a reason to jump in their seats. What doesn’t work is the idea that we have to know the history behind the girls being haunted. The further the movie progresses the less and less we fear the demonic presence. If the filmmakers were looking for shock and awe, they’ll be disappointed when they learn their ending left most with looks of befuddlement and “That’s it?” responses.
The film has a half dozen moments that will make viewers jump, plus a few that may have them wondering WTF? As per usual, the scares intensify with each passing night before the entire film goes off the rails in the final act. To their credit, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman give us moments of levity that bridge the gap between scares. No strangers to the faux documentary, having directed last year’s Catfish, the two seem to ape themselves by misdirecting the audience once again. If you watch the film and rewatch the trailer below you’ll notice a huge number of inconsistencies. The directors must have shot so much footage that they got conflicted in the editing room on how they wanted the narrative to unravel. If that’s the case, one can only hope that the eventual DVD and Blu-ray release have a branching option for viewers. If you’ve ever watched the Duel-inspired thriller Joy Ride on DVD, you can see the tone of the movie change when watching one of the deleted endings (which alters the last 29 minutes).
As tough as it is to stomach, there are a couple of different scenarios for the eventual-you-know-it’s-coming release of Paranormal Activity 4. The filmmakers can continue to take the story further into the past and ditch the camera point-of-view, or they can take us to the present with the ongoing investigation of trying to locate a missing Katie (adult version) and Kristi’s son Hunter. Regardless of what the future holds in store, PA3 remains just another stale entry in a franchise that should have never gone beyond the first Paranormal Activity.
Director(s): Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman Notable Cast: Lauren Bittner, Christopher Nicholas Smith, Chloe Csengery, Jessica Tyler Brown, Dustin Ingram, Katie Featherstone, Sprague Grayden Writer(s): Christopher B. Langdon
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!