Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) / Horror

MPAA Rated: R for some violence, language, brief sexuality, and drug use
Running Time: 83 min.

Cast: Chris Smith, Lauren Bittner, Chloe Csengery, Jessica Brown, Dustin Ingram, Hallie Foote, Johanna Braddy
Small role: Katie Featherston, Brian Boland, Sprague Grayden
Director: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Screenplay: Christopher Landon

Review published January 3, 2014

Another year, another entry in the Paranormal Activity series. Hasn't the novelty worn off yet? What started off as a modest but very effective twist on the age-old haunted house subgenre is now just finding a way to regurgitate the formula of the first film except with different actors and progressively higher budgets. The best thing I can say for Paranormal Activity 3 is that it's a better effort than Paranormal Activity 2, but that's very faint praise indeed.

Part 2 of the series is a prequel, and sort-of sequel to the original Paranormal Activity. Part 3 is a prequel to both movies, primarily taking place in 1988, when sisters Katie (Csengery, "Up All Night") and Kristi (Brown, I Do) were young girls in Carlsbad, CA. Taking care of them is their mom Julie (Bittner, Bride Wars) and their unofficial stepfather Dennis (Smith, Enough Said), a video editor who earns his living primarily shooting wedding videos and the like. Dennis is so obsessed with shooting video, he does it all the time (he even videotapes himself watching videotape!), and on one fateful evening when he gets Julie's consent to film their lovemaking session, an earthquake hits. As Dennis reviews the tape, he sees something strange that makes him set up a couple of camcorders around the house permanently, shooting six hours of footage every night in the hope of catching more of these strange occurrences. The footage comes in, as Kristi is seen sleepwalking and talking to an imaginary friend named Toby, and lots of things begin to go bump in the night.

In one of those efforts in which contempt for the audience is most certainly on display, this film, presumably set in 1988, features hi-def, 16:9 ratio footage reportedly shot to VHS tapes grossly incapable of such standards at the time. Anyone who has ever seen a videotape will immediately recognize that this footage looks far too modern to pass even the most basic plausibility test. Even worse, the HD textures remain throughout, even when Dennis decides to film to tape in '6 hour' mode, aka EP, or extended play, which would mean cloudy, grainy video with very little detail, especially if the tapes are being recorded over after each use. Yet, every clip is as bright, crisp, and vibrant as just about anything one might make in 2011, even better looking than Catfish, which is directed by the PA3 duo of Joost and Schulman.

One of my biggest complaints about PA2 is that it goes to ludicrous lengths in order to give the facade that everything we see is strictly from video shot by the participants. PA3 takes things to an extreme by having the father shoot every single facet of his life nonstop, waking or sleeping. The cameras in the home are mostly in stationary positions, though they will occasionally be picked up by one of the characters in order to film such things as a game of 'Bloody Mary' in a dark bathroom. When spooks do appear, these characters slavishly keep filming even though just about anyone else on Earth would have dropped the camera and ran out of the house in a hurry.

On a positive note, the casting of Katie and Kristi is well done, as they not only look like their adult counterparts, but they are pretty good actresses for the kind of material this is. And there are a few effective jump scares, which I won't elaborate on, as surprise is the name of the game with those.

The adults, as is typical for this series thus far, are grating at times, especially Dennis. The scene that will make just about anyone hate him involves him going through the footage of the night when he left the babysitter (Foote, Easy A) alone with the kids only for him to seem smugly proud that he was able to catch footage of the apparition scaring the bejeezus out of the woman he left to protect his girlfriend's children. This also happens to be the same night that he surely must have seen Kristi sleepwalking, standing on tables and jumping from balconies that could injure her. His friend (Ingram, Sky High) suggests telling his wife, but he won't have that; he thinks that the malevolent forces that are disturbing his home and family are just too cool to catch on video to harsh his mellow with a wife that will likely want to protect the kids from harm's way if he has incontrovertible evidence (though, for the story's contrivance, just as the husband had been in PA2, his wife is beyond the ability to reason with in this regard, refusing to look at any footage that might end the movie). What a jackass!

This also calls to mind that, being that this is a prequel to the other two films, all of these events, including a fairly traumatic ending, seem to have been completely forgotten by the young girls who grew up to also, in a bizarre coincidence, have husbands who would follow the exact same pattern as their stepfather in the use of cameras around the house. How could they have possibly forgotten? And how is the video of this traumatic evening not in some sort of evidence room somewhere, rather than stored away in a family closet unfound until now? Only a future entry will tell, I suppose.

As you can imagine, the most liberal amount of disbelief suspension is required to have even the remotest chance of enjoying Paranormal Activity 3. We now have three straight films in which the main male characters independently decide to film in the house round the clock. The production values are the highest in the series to date, with some use of CGI and sound effects in order to heighten the shock scares when they do occur. Unfortunately, the more hi-tech the film looks, the more it feels like a movie rather than real life, which is the antithesis of what the series is supposed to be about.

Without the presumption of believability, the film is dreadfully boring having to watch all of the perfunctory scenes of people sleeping. Soon, they won't even have to release a film at all; these low-budget flicks could save even more money if they just have movie theaters place a mirror in front of the screen so we can all watch ourselves nodding off to sleep for a couple of hours.

-- Followed by Paranormal Activity 4.

Qwipster's rating

2014 Vince Leo