Horror movie franchises are the cinematic equivalent of fast food restaurants — the audience feels comfortable because it knows exactly what it’s going to get. Such is the case with the third installment of Paramount’s low-budget cash cow series. Although not exactly breaking any new ground with its by now all too familiar found-footage format, "Paranormal Activity 3" hews to the formula in expertly crafted fashion, mustering up the requisite scares and then some. With no "Saw" sequel to provide competition this year, this should be the trick-or-treaters’ movie choice in October.
Newcomer directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who have some experience with faux documentaries ("Catfish"), have collaborated with returning screenwriter Christopher Landon to effectively reprise the series’ trademark elements. But this edition — a prequel that concerns the younger versions of the adult sisters from the first two — is tighter and scarier than the previous installment. It also features ample doses of humor that both provides a pressure valve for the tension and brings a welcome self-conscious mockery to the proceedings.
After a preamble featuring Katie Featherston and Sprague Grayden briefly reprising their roles as the ill-fated siblings Katie and Kristie, the story goes back to 1988, when their childhood selves (Chloe Csengery, Jessica Brown) are living in a well-appointed suburban California home with mom Julie (Laurie Bittner) and her boyfriend Dennis (Chris Smith).
Things inevitably start to go bump in the night, and since Dennis is a wedding videographer he’s well equipped to blanket the house with the video cameras that will provide the sort of spooky footage that always seems to somehow wind up as feature films in our multiplexes.
Among the creepier elements that the filmmakers have devised are Kristie’s interactions with an imaginary, ill-tempered playmate named Toby and a game of “Bloody Mary” (hinted at in the film’s trailer with a scene that isn’t in the feature) that goes seriously awry.
But the most ingenious idea is also wonderfully simple. In addition to the stationary and hand-held cameras previously employed, there is a jerry-rigged camera on a slowly swiveling oscillating fan that provides some of the scariest moments. In such sequences as one involving a babysitter who probably won’t be returning to work for this family anytime soon, the audience is forced to wait breathlessly as the camera pans back and forth, back and forth, slowly revealing the horrific goings-on.
Although there’s an undeniably repetitive aspect to the films, audiences probably won’t mind very much. And certainly this series, despite the fact that it thankfully doesn’t need to use gimmicky 3-D, fairly demands to be seen on the big screen. Resembling cinematic versions of “Where’s Waldo,” the films demand intense concentration as the audience peers at the frame trying to spot the element that doesn’t belong.
As usual, the climax, in which the family makes the mistake of retreating to the sweet grandmother’s (Hallie Foote) house, replaces the air of mystery with an all too explicit explication for what’s been going on. But it does effectively fulfill its requirement of setting things up for the inevitable next installment. One doesn’t need a Ouija board to discern that it will probably arrive sometime around next Halloween.
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