Judge Erich Asperschlager is a ghost hunter. Just look at all the invisible trophies on his wall.
Discover how the activity began.
Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman made a name for themselves with 2010's Catfish, a documentary about the shocking relationship between Schulman's brother and a woman he met online. Almost as soon as it was released, people accused the filmmakers of either manipulating the events in the film or making it all up. Joost and Schulman continue to insist everything is true. We may never know for sure, but one thing is clear: it's more fun to watch Catfish if you believe (or pretend) that it's real.
Joost and Schulman's detractors might consider it a smoking gun that the pair were tapped to direct Paranormal Activity 3, the latest in the series of popular found-footage horror flicks. Maybe it is. Or maybe they just know how to make an effective thriller that blurs the line between fact and fiction.
Facts of the Case
Instead of picking up where the last film left off, Paranormal Activity 3 goes back to 1988, for the first encounter between sister protagonists Katie and Kristie and the demonic force that continues to follow them.
Kristie and Katie live in a house with their mother and her videographer boyfriend, Dennis. As strange things begin to happen around the house, Dennis sets up cameras to capture it. Dennis becomes obsessed with reviewing the VHS footage, convinced that something real and evil is stalking the girls—a presence related to Kristie's new imaginary friend, "Toby."
I don't want to oversell Paranormal Activity 3. It doesn't bring anything new to the horror genre. It doesn't even bring anything new to the Paranormal Activity series. This movie has the same static nighttime footage as the first two, and the same low bass rumble before something scary happens. The demon is still obsessed with slamming doors and dragging victims through doorways. The movie even continues the series' most annoying tropes. Like the family member who refuses to believe in ghosts despite irrefutable video evidence. Or someone filming a terrifying situation long after any reasonable person would have dropped the camera and ran.
Paranormal Activity 3 isn't original. It's a slave to formula. There are long stretches where nothing happens. And for a series that seems intent on building a mythology, we don't know much more after the third movie than we did after the first. So why did I feel the need to turn on a few extra lights when I was finished watching it?
The Paranormal Activity movies are like amusement park rides, designed around twists, turns, and carefully constructed scares. It's not psychological horror. There are no big ideas. Even the camera has been reduced to passive observer. They are the Where's Waldo? of horror movies. We are on high alert through long, static shots, not only waiting for the scare, but constantly looking around for where it's going to happen. Paranormal Activity 3 is loud and violent in places, but the biggest scares come during the quietest moments, usually at night. It's a testament to the series that after three movies, the nighttime countdown clock is still an effective gimmick.
Paranormal Activity 3 has more in common with the first film than the second. It goes back to the immediacy of someone carrying a camera, trying to get to the bottom of a supernatural mystery. The conceit this time around is that Kristie and Katie have a live-in cameraman. As a wedding videographer, Dennis not only has the equipment to capture twelve hours of video a day, but the temperament to spend the other twelve watching it all. Dennis and his assistant Randy are part boy detectives and part exposition machines. They find the convenient article that illuminates the demon's origin, and push forward with the investigation even after the girls' mom insists they stop. Although Christopher Landon's screenplay leaves plenty of questions unanswered (for future sequels, no doubt), Paranormal Activity 3 has the strongest narrative arc of the series.
Joost and Schulman's experience making documentaries helps to sell the film's fake reality. They mostly follow the visual template of the first two, with one notable improvement. Partway through the movie, Dennis makes a custom camera rig out of an oscillating table fan. The gadget allows him to keep an eye on multiple rooms at once. The camera movement allows for some of the film's creepiest scenes, the best of which involves an unsuspecting babysitter and a bed sheet.
For all its faults, Paranormal Activity 3 succeeds as a horror movie because it's so scary, full of that much-maligned fright tactic, the jump scare. Like a rollercoaster, it doesn't matter if you see the drop coming. When the jolt happens, there's no guarding against it. Horror purists may complain these movies are cheap and formulaic, and they're right. But none of that matters when you're sitting there, waiting for the drop, helpless and wide-eyed as a bedroom door creaks open and a little girl runs by hand-in-hand with a not-so-imaginary friend.
Paranormal Activity 3 tries to capture the look of 1980s VHS footage, although the effect is diminished by the clarity that comes with having been shot in HD. The disconnect is even more pronounced on Blu-ray. The 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer isn't terribly sharp, but it looks far better than it should. It's hard to criticize a Blu-ray for looking too good, but given the focus on stark realism (down to the plain black title menus), the clarity is at odds with the film. I'm more willing to forgive the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. If Joost and Schulman were really going for authenticity, the audio would be tinny stereo at best. Instead, the soundtrack underscores the scares with a full range of dynamic audio that delivers from the faintest rumble to the loudest crash and roar.
Paranormal Activity 3 (Bu-ray) comes with both the theatrical version as well as an "Unrated Director's Cut." This new version runs 10 minutes longer, adding in a few new scenes, and extending others. Fans hoping it would restore some scenes from the trailer that were missing from the film will be disappointed. They will also be disappointed to find that getting both versions of the film counts as the set's main bonus feature. The only other bonus feature is "The Lost Tapes"—a paltry three minutes of new footage that could just as easily have been called a blooper reel. The set also comes with a DVD copy of the unrated version of the film.
With threads that tie into the story of the first two movies, Paranormal Activity 3 rewards fans of the series. Too bad the Blu-ray doesn't. The longer cut of the film is worth watching, but the lack of meaningful bonus features makes paying full price for this release a terrifying prospect.
The movie's closing credits say it's "based on the film Paranormal Activity." Strange as it is, the qualifier somehow fits this odd horror franchise. On the surface, these movies shouldn't work. The first Paranormal Activity was a surprise hit because it was new. Paranormal Activity 2 tried to distract from the repeated formula by introducing a larger mythology. Paranormal Activity 3 combines the strengths of its predecessors, going back to the beginning of Katie and Kristie's story, even as it follows the template created by the first two films. Although Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman bring their energy to the project, this isn't a great film. On the other hand, it's scary—a rare quality in modern mainstream horror. Does terror trump unoriginality? That's the real mystery.
Scary, but nothing to lose sleep over. Not Guilty!
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