Every time someone tells me they dislike the Paranormal Activity films (especially the first one), I assume they saw it on DVD. Watching one of these movies at home, even alone with the lights out and volume turned up, isn’t the point of the series. The people who like the Paranormal Activity series see them in theaters. They’re really not films– they’re communal experiences, a haunted house meant to be traveled through with others. If you miss it while it’s in theaters, you’ve missed the point. Paranormal Activity 3 isn’t the scariest of the films, but it might be the most fun to date, sprinkled with humor and a faster pace than the previous two films.
The haunted house in question belongs to Julie (Lauren Bittner), who raises her children Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) with the help of her live-in boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). When Katie begins talking to an invisible friend named Toby, and Dennis witnesses something unusual in the background of a camera shot, he decides to set up camcorders all over the house to try to capture the paranormal activity, in a move strangely similar to the two other films– this family loves their video cameras. Katie and Kristi are of course the young versions of the stars of the first two Paranormal Activities, with this prequel hinting at the possibility of a revelation that we would discover how they got haunted in the first place.
By now, you know what kind of scares to expect– a few fake-out “Gotcha!” scares, a few slow-burn scares, a few legit paranormal activity scares, all tailor-made to make an audience scream as much as possible. The fake-outs somewhat annoy me (a person jumps in front of the camera quickly, etc.), but they’re fun for the audience– they rev up suspense while also allowing for some quick post-scream laughter. There is more humor in this one than in the previous installments, a bit more self-awareness and more wit in the scares. A scene involving someone under a sheet like a ghost is particularly funny and surprising. Plus, the characters are a bit less annoying and illogical: they’re still not really developed, and they still stay in the house far longer than I would if I knew it was haunted, but a few characters behave reasonably and get the hell out of there the second they realize what they’re dealing with.
Some people complain that not enough happens in these films, and usually this elicits an eyeroll from me at the MTV attention spans of filmgoers nowadays, but this felt like the quickest of the three while maintaining a prime level of suspense. The timing of the edits and the camera movement is top-drawer horror genre work. I especially loved the camera placed on the oscillating fan, which created a sense of movement that many scenes in this series lack– what will you see when the camera oscillates back into the room, or if something loud and unsettling happens right as the camera is moving away, what is happening that we can’t see? The directors of the faux-documentary Catfish know exactly how to tell a narrative through “found footage” for maximum suspense.
Is this a “good movie”? Hard to say. The characters are only blandly likable, the dialogue is witless like most human interaction, the storyline through the films is really secondary to the jolts, and the sequels have failed to stick with me and haunt my dreams after leaving the theater. Every criticism that people have of this trilogy is on the money. Yet here’s why I love it: in a time when torture porn horror is increasingly popular, here is a film with minimal CGI and minimal blood, relying solely on old-school haunted house scares and succeeding. Plus, there’s no better argument for theater-over-VOD than the Paranormal Activity series. You feel the sense of community with the audience. You scream together, you laugh together, you gasp together, you claw your fingernails into your neighbors’ arms. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a haunted house at Halloween when people in masks jump out at you– you know the scariest parts are coming up, but you hold on to those around you, try to stomach the suspense, and trudge forward. Those who hate the Paranormal Activity trilogy won’t enjoy this film either… but they’re missing out on one of the few unique theater-going experiences left.
Note: very little of the footage from the trailer is in the film. It’s increasingly rare that you get to enter a movie that has more or less nothing spoiled by trailers.