The back-to-basics approach of Oren Peli's original Paranormal Activity (2007) worked to a degree in generating scares through its stripped-to-the-bone aesthetic and its merging of situational familiarity with a fear of the unknown; effectively exploiting the seemingly tired mockumentary, 'found footage' sub-genre of horror cinema by placing its action within the relatable confines of a suburban home. An obvious sequel that followed a couple of years later offered little beyond a business-like regurgitation of similar false starts and lazy jumps, albeit bereft of the novelty of the unexpected, its rules of engagement already firmly established and followed to the letter; it was no longer a case of what was going to happen, simply when. The success of both instalments coupled with an obscene cost-to-profit ratio meant that a third episode was always going to be an unfortunate inevitability, and in insisting on building upon the series’ weakest element, a backwards facing attempt to add to a vaguely coherent mythology, meant that a prequel was the only feasible direction in which the narrative could head.
Whether the hiring of directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman for this instalment could be considered a shrewd move really depends on one’s feelings towards their debut feature Catfish (2010); which can be seen as either a cleverly edited, ethically dubious documentary from some guys who lucked out, or an intelligent work of fiction which explored the faceless façade of social networking and its potential for blurring boundaries of identity and fantasy. Its veracity aside however, the directors demonstrated an ability to build narrative tension, much like the first Paranormal Activity its strengths lay in not knowing what was coming, a middle-of-the-night arrival at an abandoned ranch especially playing like a scene from a bona fide horror film. That said, there’s little chance of displaying anything approaching directorial ownership when presented with a third instalment of a successful franchise, anonymously sticking to an established template to offer more of the same, with shifts between objective and subjective points of view that serve to seriously undermine its ‘found footage’ framework.
The film opens with original protagonist Katie (Katie Featherston) moving her things into the basement of her pregnant sister Kristi’s home, setting this sequence between the events of the first two films. Kristi’s husband, for some reason filming this thrilling moment of expositional storage management, is excited at finding a series of ‘antique’ VHS home movies in one of the boxes, and it’s these tapes which make up what we see for the remainder of the film. It’s immediately clear that returning writer Christopher B. Landon is going to struggle to justify why a house should be filled with cameras, running through the night, for a third time, and struggle he does. The young Katie and Kristi’s father Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith, a dead ringer for Catfish’s Nev Schulman) is a wedding video photographer, with an office conveniently filled with cameras and editing equipment with which to review his nocturnal recordings. Unlike the first film, in which the camera was a new toy for Katie’s husband, making some kind of sense as to why he was constantly pointing it at his wife, here Dennis is left to make up barely passable and unquestioned excuses (“I feel something”) to turn his home into the subject of a paranoiac’s video journal, especially when he leaves the camera running all day as well, simply to catch some exposition about financial difficulties and the cost of all these videotapes.
If the first act of the film is simply business as usual, bumps in the night recorded with statically positioned cameras, an attempt to inject movement into the frame with the potentially neat addition of a camera mounted on a revolving fan, allowing a 180° pan across two rooms, is wasted as a result of the predictability of its reveals. Three films in, the audience is by now well trained in what to expect and look out for, so an empty frame in one sweep then filled with a creepy figure in the second is entirely devoid of tension. Lacking in anything resembling a genuine sense of unease, we’re left with an abundance of false jumps that merely serve to irritate rather than startle, and if a game of ‘Bloody Mary’ that Katie and Dennis’ work colleague play whilst her parents are out works to a degree, it’s not as a result of the ‘lights out, shaky door handle’ effects, but due to the dynamic between the two of them, the grown-up clearly scared shitless but trying not to let the kid see it.
The third act may be where Joost and Schulman really try to give the audience what they came for, but the ridiculous origin story aside (something about a coven of witches and a paedophile demon), it’s the switch to a subjective handheld perspective that really inhibits believability. Quite why Dennis sets up cameras at his mother-in-law’s house is one thing, but why he continues to film when his traumatised family are under siege, pointing his lens at his hand as he slowly opens a door or finds his wife floating in the air is as nonsensical as Kristi’s husband seeming to have forgotten that he’d seen these tapes when the action of Paranormal Activity 2 begins.
There’s nothing in Paranormal Activity 3 that moves the franchise in anything approaching an interesting direction, delivering a narrative and series of jumps as phoney as the false starts on which it depends for early thrills. Essentially now a series continuing to remake itself, much like the slew of 80s reinventions from which the original film stood out, it’s a prime example of the law of diminishing returns with very little validity offered for its existence. But if this instalment makes even half as much as its predecessors, I’m sure those responsible for part four are more than ready to throw a few more saucepans to make another hundred million.
Paranormal Activity 3 – 2011 – USA – 84 mins – Dir : Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman