Paranormal Activity 3 – the latest chapter in the low-budget haunted-house saga begun in 2007 by D.I.Y. filmmaker Oren Peli – is presented as a prequel to 2010’s Paranormal Activity 2 which itself was a prequel of sorts to the first film. Taking the helm for the latest found-footage foray is the directing duo of Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost whose 2010 debut the Facebook documentary Catfish provided chills of a more existential variety. (It also encountered a fair share of skepticism about its authenticity which in an odd way makes the filmmakers uniquely qualified to direct a film like this.)
Schulman and Joost know better than to tinker with a proven formula – the first two films grossed over $370 million worldwide combined – and their film for the most part employs the same straightforward premise and stripped down approach as its predecessors. The only real difference is the time period: Whereas the first two films took place in the recent past Paranormal Activity 3 turns the clock all the way back to 1988 when young sisters Katie and Kristi purportedly first came into contact with otherworldly houseguests. (I say “purportedly” because nothing is ever certain in this genre.)
The girls’ troubles begin shortly after their single mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) invites her boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith notable only for his resemblance to former Gonzaga point guard Dan Dickau) to move in with them. A professional wedding videographer with a host of camera and editing equipment at his disposal Dennis is conveniently equipped to chronicle the events that ensue. What follows is standard Paranormal Activity protocol. It begins with a few seemingly innocuous late-night stirrings followed by more ominous occurrences. Furniture gets rearranged. A light fixture falls from the ceiling. Soon the spirit – or whatever it is – grows more bold befriending the youngest sister Kristi who nicknames it “Toby.” And just what does Toby want exactly? If Kristi knows she isn’t telling.
The plot of Paranormal Activity 3 is pretty much rubbish so I suppose we should be thankful there’s only enough of it to provide context to the scares. The majority of them are exceedingly cheap more the product of aggressive sound design than anything else – and yet still maddeningly effective. (There are a handful of truly devious jump cuts for which the filmmakers should frankly be ashamed.) You jump from your seat and immediately curse yourself for doing so.
The found-footage genre is now established enough that we are well-trained to its devices. It’s one reason why these films are so much better when experienced with a large crowd preferable late in the evening. As we collectively scan the static frame for traces of movement the briefest glimpse of a supernatural presence it feels like a collective game of “Where’s Waldo ” the winner declared in an excited terrified gasp. Played alone it just seems stupid.