It’s unheard of for second films in horror franchises to be good, let alone third entries, and yet the three films in the Paranormal Activity series are consistently good. The first one still takes the cake due to its ingenuity, its authenticity and the fact that it started the whole trend of static camera found-footage horror filmmaking. Paranormal Activity 2 was not quite as effective as its predecessor but it was still nothing to sneeze at, adding some innovate scares while expanding the series’ mythology.
Paranormal Activity 3 is better than PA2, although not as scary. The series’ popular formula is subject to the law of diminishing returns, thus, seeing these types of scares the third time around is not as affecting as it was the first time. Still, there’s no denying that PA3 is scary. It also has some things that the previous two films didn’t have: lots of humour and genuinely good acting.
PA3 is set in California in 1988 and follows Katie and Kristi, played by Katie Featherston and Sprague Grayden in the previous films, as little girls when they were first bothered by the malevolent demon that haunts their family. Played by Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown, Katie and Kristi are typical girls who have an imaginary friend named Toby (who obviously turns out to be not so imaginary.)
As a convenient way to explain the found-footage conceit, their mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) is now involved with wedding videographer Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), so when strange happenings start occurring around the girls, Dennis sets up a makeshift surveillance system to find out exactly what’s going on.
Just like in PA2, there are some innovations regarding the nighttime scenes in PA3. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the pair behind last year’s pseudo-documentary Catfish, directed the film and here they demonstrate a special gift for timing. They pare down the nighttime cameras to just three, one set up in both bedrooms and one on the main floor recording the kitchen and living room. The decision to limit the number of cameras is wise since the large number of cameras in PA2 took away from the authenticity and largely made editing do the job of scaring people.
Joost and Schulman also come up with a brilliant idea for the third camera recording the kitchen and living room. They hook it up to a fan so that the camera pans back and forth between kitchen and living room at reliable intervals. This steady timing allows for some frightening scenes on the main floor, one involving a babysitter and the campy notion of a white-sheet ghost, the other involving Julie and some misplaced kitchen appliances.
Perhaps learning from the horror films of Sam Raimi (Evil Dead), Joost and Schulman know how to disarm the viewer with well-placed humour, making the viewer unprepared for when the actual scare comes. The scene in which Katie and Dennis’s friend Randy (Dustin Ingram) play a game of Bloody Mary uses this kind of humour particularly well to draw out an unbearably tense scene.
The acting here is also quite impressive. Christopher Nicholas Smith is the most likable and fully-formed of the father figures in the series, giving a genuinely good performance as Dennis that still seems sufficiently naturalistic. The child actors Chloe Csengary and Jessica Tyler Brown are especially impressive as young Katie and Kristi. Joost and Schulman coax great, chilling performances out of them that never seem inauthentic — a rarity for child actors, especially in horror films.
The big caveat with PA3 is that just like with the previous films the viewer has to be complicit with the scares or they won’t work. Like with comedy, you can resist being affected by horror. Its scares work in a similar manner to when you are lying awake in the pitch black of your bedroom, allowing your mind to wander and create frightening theories for all the creaks and cracks that echo throughout the house. PA3 needs you to surrender to the unknown and allow your imagination to fill in the gaps with the most frightening explanations.
Perhaps the reason the Paranormal Activity films are so successful is because they still feel fresh when compared to all the schlock that passes for horror in Hollywood. They play off things that actually scare us and tap into our greatest collective paranormal fascination: fear of ghosts.
If you didn’t like the previous films, Paranormal Activity 3 won’t work its magic on you. But for those viewers who appreciate this new formula for horror, you’ll be pleasantly impressed.