One of the greatest triumphs of independent filmmaking over mainstream franchises took place in Fall 2009, when micro-budget indie Paranormal Activity stole the box office crown away from Saw VI. Instead of relying on gore effects to produce easy shocks, first-time feature director Oren Peli found ingenious, deceptively simple ways to generate a sense of nightmare-inducing unease.
The straightforward premise about a young couple terrorized by an unseen demons could’ve easily fallen victim to clichés, but Peli allowed the horrors to unfold in front of a stationary mounted camera. This minimalist technique proved to be enormously effective, playing on the audience’s paranoia of every odd noise, subtle movement and inexplicable shadow.
It also cleverly exploited viewers’ primal fear of being unable to trust the person lying in bed with them every night. When Katie (Katie Featherston) crawled out of bed and stood looking at her slumbering boyfriend (Micah Sloat) while the time code on his camera raced forward, it produced a chill more resonant than any of the picture’s jump-out-of-your-seat moments. Seen today, Peli’s film holds up brilliantly well and deserves to be ranked alongside The Blair Witch Project as one of the scariest films of the last two decades.
Thankfully, the subsequent Paranormal franchise has not gone the route of Blair Witch, which followed its landmark of psychological suspense with a laughable big-budget bloodbath that bared no relation to the original. Though Peli has merely served as producer of the sequels, his trademark style has been present throughout. Yet despite his involvement, the last two pictures have offered diminishing returns that favor bigger set pieces over subtle scares.
Paranormal Activity 3 functions as a prequel of sorts, though the marketing campaign has been rather deceiving. Sure, it’s a pleasant surprise that practically none of the footage in the film’s widely seen teaser is used in the final cut, thus preserving the various surprises. In fact, many of the promotional materials appear to be from an entirely different film altogether (including one memorable still that looks suspiciously similar to a hit YouTube video).
But it’s a shame that screenwriter Christopher B. Landon couldn’t center his tale on pint-sized sisters Katie (a terrific Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown, exuding cherub-like creepiness), the child versions of the franchise’s two main heroines. Instead, Landon focuses on their parents, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) and Julie (Lauren Bittner), who enact an uninspired retread of the original formula.
Why did Dennis have to be yet another camera-obsessed amateur filmmaker intent on logging the paranormal happenings in his house? The footage could’ve simply been made to resemble home movies since the story takes place in 1988, when parents were intent on logging every moment their children’s lives with bulky camcorders. Ominous details in seemingly serene shots would’ve been far more unnerving than the blatant supernatural mischief on display here.
That being said, Paranormal Activity 3 is still as enjoyable as a first-rate haunted house. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the cinematic tricksters behind last year’s suspenseful gem Catfish, are gifted at balancing on the line of hysteria separating nervous amusement from out-and-out terror. This is most apparent during a game of “Bloody Mary” unwisely played by Katie and her babysitter (a very funny Dustin Ingram), which is as darkly humorous as it is genuinely frightening. Some of the film’s most hypnotic sequences are filmed by a camera attached to an oscillating fan, which naturally builds dread with its slow back-and-forth pans of the same room.
Flipping between multiple angles does dilute the suspense to a certain agree, allowing for more conventional editing. There’s also an excess of distracting sound effects that seem all-too-intent on making the audience jump. It’s clear that the film’s slamming doors and various false alarms were fiddled with in post, thus lending a faintly artificial tone to various potential thrills. Yet Joost and Schulman keep the onscreen “activity” in check while never letting the digital effects cross into self-parodying territory as in the inferior Paranormal Activity 2.
In light of the film’s spectacular box office success over its opening weekend, it’s clear that adult audiences are still hungering for a quality scare. I could tell the film was connecting with viewers at the packed Saturday matinee screening I attended. People were gasping in shock and jumping in fright before immediately laughing at themselves. Aside from the over-the-top, head-scratching finale (somewhat reminiscent of The Last Exorcism), Paranormal Activity 3 is a fine example of crowd-pleasing, bone-rattling entertainment. It may not be as innovative or original as this year’s superior “found footage” thriller, Apollo 18, but some may claim that it's more fun.
Paranormal Activity 3 opened Oct. 21 at the AMC Showplace Village Crossing 18, Regal Gardens 1-6 and Regal Gardens 7-13 in Skokie. It rejuvenated the waning box office by raking in a remarkable $54 million according to Box Office Mojo. It is rated R.
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