For this go-round on the cinema verite horror carousel, we revisit our favorite demon vessel Katey and her little sister Kristi. This time, we are thrust back to when the two haunted lasses were children in the late 1980s. Kristi has taken to speaking with an imaginary friend named Toby whose arrival coincides with a series of bizarre occurrences around their home. Their step-dad, a videographer specializing in weddings, sets up cameras around the house to document these events and try to identify a pattern. Much ghostliness ensues.
Let me get this out of the way quickly, I am a fan of the first two films in a major way. The first once was just unique enough, while circling convention, to be monstrously effective deserving of being championed as a low-budget success story. It also featured moments of legitimate terror that gave us nightmares for weeks. Paranormal Activity 2 did everything a sequel is supposed to do. It maintained all of the tropes that fans loved about the original while at the same time expanding, explaining, and quantifying the universe of the first film. When it was announced that part three would be a prequel, even more so than was most of Paranormal Activity 2, it seemed an interesting conceit and, frankly, the logical place to conclude the story. If it went on to a fourth film, the gimmick would become stale and the story muddled.
Unfortunately, the franchise didn’t have the chance to get stale in a fourth installment. Paranormal Activity 3 is a major disappointment, bucking the popular, and inaccurate, concession that, “if you like the first two, you’ll like this one.” The scares in this film, with very few exceptions, seem so familiar and unaltered as to be frustratingly formulaic. In fact, a goodly amount of the scares are predicated upon the expectations you have built up to this point in the series. They therefore resort to “fake out” scares and the startle of nonthreatening characters appearing suddenly. It is beyond cheap.
The first two films found creative avenues around the suspension of disbelief inherently required of cinema verite horror audiences. The basic problem with horror films told through a technologically enhanced first-person perspective is that we all know that when the shit hits the fan, the only logical response from the characters would be to put the goddamn camera down. The first two films get around this by having the camera mounted on a tripod for most of the most severe stuff and then, in the sequel, mounting them all over the house. In Paranormal 3, the tripod is still there, but not only does the step-dad not put down the camera in the most intense moments, but the film is set in 1988 for god sake. This means he’s running around carrying a little girl on one arm and a video camera the size of a microwave oven on the other? This seems a minor quibble, but it is at the heart of what makes this film feel so false and forced.
But honestly the biggest problem with Paranormal Activity 3 is that it is a film without a third act. The film feels incomplete and horrendously rushed; as I’m sure it was. A whirlwind of new exposition and twists are introduced at the start of the final act, but then it ends abruptly with absolutely no note of finality. When directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (the minds behind last year’s Catfish) introduced the film to the Fantastic Fest audience, they mentioned that it wasn’t quite finished, but only in terms of sound design. That means that unfortunately this unsatisfying finish will be the one shown in theaters.
The case could be made that they are merely leaving the door open for the sequel machine to keep churning. But each of the first two films feel like completed stories. Even Paranormal 2, featuring a pseudo cliffhanger finale, feels like it said everything it needed to say and revealed all that needed to be revealed. Paranormal 3 introduces twists, plot devices, and even new malevolent apparitions without so much as a sneeze in the direction of context. It expects you to go back through the first two films and piece together the most acceptable explanation, which is out-and-out lazy. Prequels are supposed to further the stories we already know and lend deeper perspective to the overall story arc. Paranormal 3 feels like a completely unnecessary piece of viral marketing designed to sell the first two films.
There was plenty to like about the film leading up to that clustercuss of an ending. The one scare involving stillness, the ghost in the kitchen, was a unique change of pace for the franchise, but whets our appetites for more scares of that type which the film is ill equipped to deliver. I also enjoyed the obvious references to Poltergeist with the weed-smoking parents and the haunted TV. Beyond that, I may have to call it quits with the Paranormal Activity universe and wash my hands of a third installment that isn’t a specter of the original film’s quality.