Paranormal Activity 2 blew it, losing any sense of realism the first had and then doing something really stupid - adding mythology to the whole business. What happened in Paranormal Activity could happen to anyone, but Paranormal Activity 2 made it so that the haunting was predicated on Katie’s family being involved in some generations-old coven of evil. On top of that the film dived into deep, deep silliness at the end. The whole thing felt played out.
Which is what’s so surprising about Paranormal Activity 3 - there’s a freshness to this entry, probably because directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost have some idea how to make an actual movie. 3 feels the most like a real film, even though it sticks to the exhausted found footage format of the first two. Once again it’s a movie where a character’s first reaction to a noise or a scream is to pick up a camera and poke around, and by now the series is barely trying to even create a logical reason for filming to be happening.
But listen, if you’re going to attack the logic of Paranormal Activity 3’s technical aspects your head will explode - the fact that the VHS camcorder can operate in the film’s lighting conditions is a dealbreaker, never mind the fact that the movie makes zero attempt to mimic the look of VHS (or its aspect ratio). The found footage stuff is completely a gimmick, and Paranormal Activity 3 is chafing against the boundaries of that gimmick as it attempts to find a more traditional narrative structure.
It also goes to the next level with the scares, something that was desperately needed after 2’s ‘been there, done that’ creaking and door slams. This time the camera captures some pretty good stuff - there’s an effective ghost under a sheet scene, some spooky physical manifestations and manipulations. Where the first two films had the low impact scares of real life, 3 gets much more into spookhouse territory.
But in that territory comes the loss of the elements that made the first film so effective; this time around the phenomena is so big, so supernatural, that it blows right through the ‘this could happen in my house’ feeling. Of course Paranormal Activity 2 proved that you couldn’t tread that same ground again, so what the third film loses in actual scares it gains in fun, haunted hayride-esque shocks.
What is more effective, though, is the shift of focus to young versions of Katie and her sister Kristi. Adults in these movies are, without exception, irritating, but the way that kids react to this stuff feels more real and also more menacing.
Once again this is an audience movie; if you’re going to bother seeing Paranormal Activity 3, do it in a big, vocal crowd. This is the least subtle of the three (they actually get around to making a sex tape this time, something pervy audiences have been thinking about since the beginning), which is what makes it such a great audience film. It’s a movie that completely stands between the found footage frights of the first film and the audience particpation ‘Don’t open that door!’ stuff of the best slashers.
Unfortunately Paranormal Activity 3 eventually gets into the mythology introduced in the second film. I don’t know why anyone wants this stuff in their movie - isn’t it enough to just have a totally aggro ghost haunting you throughout your life without bringing in stupid covens? This entry does deal with the mythology much better than 2 did, and it uses that mythology to bring the film to the best ending of all three.
Paranormal Activity 3 isn’t just the most cinematic of the three films, it’s also the one that seems most interested in placing itself in a continuity of previous horror movies. The film has references/homages/rip-offs from Poltergeist, The Shining (Kristi’s imaginary friend Toby is just one letter off from Danny’s imaginary friend Tony), The Amityville Horror, The Last Exorcism, Wicker Man, Halloween and more. They’re fun winks and homages, and don’t stop the movie dead.
Once upon a time the horror community was agitating to get Oren Peli’s little movie released. Paramount had bought it and word on the street was that they would shelve it so they could do a bigger budget remake. At the time it seemed impossible that this film would spawn the next annual Halloween horror series, but here’s the third film and I’m betting this one is enough of a crowd pleaser that a fourth is guaranteed.