Much like its progenitor, The Blair Witch Project, the first Paranormal Activity thrived on novelty value and a degree of creativity within its bare-bones indie production that helped turn horror away from the torture porn aspect that dominated it for the past decade. The inevitable sequel and string of knock-offs have since bled it dry. Paranormal Activity 3 continues to milk the formula of its predecessors, but also manages to breathe some new life into the franchise and maintain its trademark intensity.
The first two films charted the haunting and ultimate possession of two sisters, Kristi and Katie, by a malevolent entity, each detailed in a “found-footage” mockumentary style. Paranormal Activity was an exercise in minimalist filmmaking that proved the maxim of “less is more”; Paranormal Activity 2 played like a remake consisting of rejected ideas from the original padded with filler and too intent on dovetailing with the original to stand on its own.
This latest entry is a prequel set in 1988, depicting the girls’ (here played by Jessica Tyler Brown and Chloe Csengery) initial childhood encounters with the entity that stalks them throughout the series. The two share a two-level home with their mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) and her boyfriend Dennis (Chris Smith). Kristi’s imaginary friend, Toby, quickly turns out to be not-so-imaginary, and not very friendly either. After accidentally capturing footage of something unusual, Dennis, a wedding photographer/videographer, decides to set up a couple of video cameras in the house.
Naturally, what follows is a lot of footage of things going bump in the night, lights playing tricks on everyone, and furniture finding its own feng shui before the goings finally amp up and become truly malevolent. It’s the same sort of thing we saw in the first two, but PA3 tops its predecessors, especially last year’s risible sequel, by being more inventive without coming across as a slick, soulless retread. Minimalism has always been one of the series’ strengths, and an apparent budget boost allows for judicious use of digital effects to allow this entry more of an edge without going overboard.
The fact that PA3 feels more creatively inspired and less derivative than PA2 is due to the new blood involved, namely directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (the duo behind last year’s semi-documentary Catfish, which was creepy in its own right) and screenwriter Christopher B. Landon. They correct the mistakes of the first two by crafting some fleshed-out characters and throwing in a little humor early on to off-set and contrast the tension.
There’s also a little more plot to be found in the story (as much as there can be without killing the illusion) and we’re given a tantalizing ending in a lengthy, intense single-take that expands a little on what came before. Nevertheless, the found-footage conceit that ties the series together is getting more than a little strained (with the exception of the Kardashians, no family documents itself this obsessively via camcorder). There’s a feeling of “been there, done that” creeping in that’s likely to frustrate viewers familiar with the franchise.