Paranormal Activity 3 Review: Only a Pants-Wetting Ninny Would Fall for It a Third Time (P.S. I'm a Pants-Wetting Ninny)
Full disclosure: I liked the first two Paranormal Activity movies, so if you're one of the many franchise naysayers, my opinion may not carry much weight with you. Actually, "like" may not be the accurate word for it: I thought they were effective films. It's not an enjoyable series of movies to watch; it's an uncomfortable, disquieting and helpless experience, helpless because there are no answers, because there's nothing you can say to convince yourself that the characters are going to be OK. If you've seen the first two films, then you know that there will be no heroics. No Deus ex machina. There are no silver bullets in the Paranormal Activity franchise, no wooden stakes, and no axes to the brain. They can't even leave the house, because it's not the house that's haunted. It's the people. Paranormal Activity movies are an endeavor in the inevitable: No one can save themselves; in fact the culminating deaths in these films feel like a relief, an end to the tension and tedium and dread.
The third film in as many years takes us back nearly two decades to the childhood of sisters Katie and Kristi, the central female characters in the first and second films, respectively. Allusions were made to an incident in their childhood in previous films, but the events were never spoken of. It's 1988, and we see them settling into a new house with their mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner) and her new husband, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). Dennis is a wedding videographer, a convenient excuse for someone in 1988 to have several video cameras, which he sets up around the house after he catches something mysterious on film during an earthquake. Paranormal Activity 3 is comprised of this found footage. (The lack of technology also allows for a effective camera trick: Dennis rigs a video camera to a slow-moving fan, which slowly pans back and forth across the main living area, providing brief glimpses of activity going on in one side of the room before moving to the other side).
Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the documentarians behind the controversial Catfish, take on the directing duties in the third film, but they simply recreate the naturalistic style and mood of Oren Pelli, the writer and director who originated the series (who, himself, borrowed the mood and style from Blair Witch). The characters and setting are different, but there's not a lot in terms of setup and payoff that separates this film from the previous two until the final minutes. It does not veer from expectations; It alternates between the banal daily activities of the family and the slow-building and increasingly creepy incidents that take place while they are asleep. It's excruciatingly dull to watch at times, but that's by design: There's something eerily relatable about the banality that helps create a connection with the characters, even if they're not particularly compelling people. That they're unknown actors only serves to strengthen that connection: They're just like us! The parents play house with their kids; they bicker occasionally; Mom sometimes wakes up for a midnight snack; and little sister will stand in one place for three hours in the middle of the night or carry on a conversation with an unseen figure off camera at four in the morning. The trick in this series, and one that Joost and Schulman once again pull off, is turning the restlessness of the audience into helpless fear.
The third film, like the second, provides no back-story; there's no exposition. It does offer a few more clues, but the central mystery of what or who is wreaking the evil havoc, or where it came from, remains unsolved. That remains the key to the success of the franchise: If you could figure out what it is, then maybe you could figure out how to stop it. As long as it remains unknown, it can't be defeated. And as long as the filmmakers continue to follow a similar formula, using different but related characters (there is a unaccounted for biological father now, for instance), while building incrementally on the now slightly more developed mythology, Paranormal Activity may be able to drag us along in our shit-stained boxers for five or six more installments.
A note about the film-going experience: Like no other film series in recent memory, the Paranormal Activity movies have a tendency to bring out the worst in movie-going audiences, as has been my experience with all three movies (judging by comments from readers, it's a near universal experience). Typically, half the audience is scared shit-less and the other half is bored senseless. I can sympathize with the bored half; if I weren't so vulnerable to paranormal tropes, maybe I'd be exhausted by the films as well. They don't work on everyone. But if you are one of those bored or restless individuals, do us all a favor: Don't be an asshole. If you didn't like the first two movies, stay at home. And if you decide to go anyway, or someone drags you to see it, then don't be a dick. Don't sigh audibly, don't check your phone two dozen times, and don't laugh at inappropriate times. The universe doesn't revolve around you, douchebag. Just because you don't like something doesn't mean you should ruin it for the entire theater. If you must express disapproval, wait until after the movie, and the rest of us will do you the courtesy of waiting until after the film to tell you that we don't give a shit what you think, you asshat bucket of dicks.