Director: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Cast: Lauren Bittner, Chris Smith, Chloe Csengery, Jessica Tyler Brown
Screenplay: Christopher Landon
83 mins. Rated R for some violence, language, brief sexuality and drug use.
I’ve spoken before about my initial reluctance to watch the Paranormal Activity franchise, and how I was won over by the incredible concept and storytelling put together for the second film in the franchise, with its clever use of flashback and still finding a way to move the plot forward. So I went into Paranormal Activity 3 with high hopes for when the story was going. The third film ending up being the best-reviewed of the entire series, with many critics seeing the film in a favorable light. Was I one of them?
Paranormal Activity 3 begins by showing us that Katie and Kristi have amassed a large quantity of home videos from their childhood, and then flashing back to the contents of those tapes, in 1988. We are presented with the earliest footage of this paranormal activity, showing exactly how the sisters first became involved with the entities that have followed them for decades.
There’s a lot of love for Paranormal Activity 3, but as a critique purely of the story, I was ultimately let down. The issues of the Paranormal Activity franchise have something in common with the Resident Evil films in that they sometimes seem like a setup for the next film instead of driving forward the narrative. Paranormal Activity 3 is the franchise at its most wheel-spinning. There is a lot of entertainment value and visually impressive technical display in the movie, but whereas the second film was mostly prequel, it still drove the story forward. PA3 seems like the movie that, were it removed from the narrative, would ultimately change nothing. As a complete franchise, it works better, but looking at it on its own, it struggles to find purpose.
I mentioned the films technical display, and I like how we get an explanation for why everyone keeps going to filming the unusual happenings by introducing Dennis (Chris Smith, Enough Said, Little Children). With that, we get some ingenuity in camera placement and technique, specifically when Dennis attaches a camera to a spinning fan in order to provide some really exciting moments. This franchise has always been a feature-length horror version of I Spy, with viewers scouring frames of the static camera, looking for ghosts and creeps and crawlies, subconsciously working themselves up for the scare in advance.
I also really like what we’re given in the 1980s, as a mythology builder. This is the first time in the series that I feel an overarching narrative is being built (yes, even though I’m criticizing the lack of forward momentum, I like the info we’re being delivered). I was also intrigued with the kind of narrative back-stepping being done. I had not guessed the directions this film would take us as viewers, and again, had the film moved the narrative forward while simultaneously stepping backward, I think it would have worked better, especially given where the previous film had ended. Give us something to go with.
Paranormal Activity 3 is a fine enough sequel to the franchise, and it introduces a lot of elements that the franchise would continue to use going forward. I just wish the film actually worked the narrative because it feels meaningless, like a side quest film, and that shouldn’t be the case in building a world and franchise, especially following the excellent second installment. This one is a well-made film that sputters for too much of its run time, but it should offer sufficient scares for fans of the series.
-Kyle A. Goethe