‘Paranormal Activity 3’: Prequel is still just a dread-filled bore
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, Oct. 21, 2011
Hello darkness, my old friend. It's time for another in the "Paranormal Activity" series, the horror franchise in which the stuff viewers imagine happening in the shadows is more compelling than what visibly occurs.
As marketing buffs will remember, 2007's "Paranormal Activity" was made for $87.43 (not counting advertising costs) and grossed more than the Greek government lost to tax evasion that year. The subsequent movies have become more complicated, but they still rely mostly on the power of suggestion. Sudden noises and unexpected movements substitute for character and plot.
Expanding on the intentionally vague original, the sequels spin a diabolical (if quite silly) mythos around Katie and Kristi, two California sisters who attract poltergeists the way porch lights draw moths. "Paranormal Activity 3" is a prequel inside a prequel. We meet the two women in 2005, yet to experience the frights moviegoers have already witnessed. The siblings have just found a box of VHS videotapes from their childhood, and the rest of the movie pretends to be that footage.
Back in 1988, Katie (Chloe Csengery) and the younger Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) live with their divorced mom, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her new boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). Strange things start happening, which might be the fault of Kristi's imaginary friend, Toby - although Grandma also seems a little ominous.
The underemployed Dennis just happens to be a wedding videographer, so he has the gear to set up cameras all over the house. His (and the movie's) big innovation is to place one camera atop a swiveling fan mechanism, so the viewpoint slowly toggles between the living room and the kitchen. This is a new way to force the audience to wait, its dread building as each cycle threatens a potential shock to the adrenal system.
The latest installment plays all the tricks of the earlier ones but with a new emphasis on queasy humor. Initially, Julie mocks Dennis's ghost-busting, as does a babysitter who spends one night in the house; both provide tongue-in-cheek jolts that can be laughed away. But they eventually become believers, joining Dennis and his assistant, who encourages his boss to learn more about occult phenomena. But in the "Paranormal" movies, knowledge isn't power. The more you know about Them, the more They want to get you.
The first movie's home-video premise, aside from offering an extremely low-budget filmmaking mode, provided a sense of everyday reality to balance the story's essential preposterousness. But the setup wasn't always plausible, because even the most devoted cameraman is likely to stop filming during moments of terror.
This movie is even sloppier about such things. Although the story begins with a box of videotapes, what follows is an edited narrative, not a jumble of old footage. The grown Katie and Kristi, who presumably are watching their 1988 selves, never reappear after the prologue to manipulate or comment on the tapes. The film includes numerous shots that could not possibly have been produced by Dennis's various cameras, fixed or handheld. And directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who are new to the series, don't bother to make the "old" tapes look like '80s VHS images.
Joost and Schulman previously directed "Catfish," a purported documentary that skeptics suspect was faked. That film was about a woman who posed as someone else on Facebook, raising questions about digital-age authenticity that dovetail with the "Paranormal Activity" franchise.
Inadvertently, both the duo's features make the same point: that high-tech hasn't really changed anything. With or without video and computers, the gullible are still suckered by charlatans and scared by thumps in the night. "Paranormal Activity 3" just uses new technology to deliver the same old ghosts-and-goblins hokum.
Contains violence, profanity,
sexuality and pot smoking.