The late-night screening of this movie that I attended kicked off with a whoop of promotional activity: hip-hop DJs, Xbox giveaways, a giddy appearance by the film’s two directors (one of them sporting a fake knife through his head). None of this was necessary. As with most horror franchises, the audience for the Paranormal Activity films is pre-sold. But where fans of the Saw or Hostel pictures come for the gore and torment, the PA crowd is drawn by the straightforward shocks and thrills of old-fashioned haunted-house movies. Given the series’ constricting premise—that what we’re seeing is “found footage,” and thus must consist entirely of POV shots—it’s remarkable that the films haven’t collapsed into witless repetition. But they haven’t, quite. Paranormal Activity 3 actually is a scary movie.
While last year’s Paranormal Activity 2 was a prequel of sorts, set a few months before the events in the original film (which likewise took place in 2006), this new one goes back much farther. First, though, it reacquaints us with Katie (Katie Featherston) and Kristi (Sprague Grayden), the two sisters from the previous movies. Katie has come to Kristi’s pre-horror home with a box of old VHS tapes from their childhood, which neither of them has ever watched. When the tapes mysteriously disappear, we relocate to 1988, when the sisters were little girls (played by Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown) living with their single mom, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) in a big house in Carlsbad, California.
Fortuitously, Dennis is a wedding videographer, with a goodly stock of cameras and a complete tape-editing setup at his disposal. One night he suggests to Julie that they make a sex tape. She agrees, and they’re almost sort of getting down to it when the whole house begins to shake, and they must flee. The sex-tape camera remains behind, of course, and in the shower of dust drifting down from the room’s cracked ceiling, we see the outline of a spectral figure. When Dennis sees it, too, on an editing monitor the following day, he decides to set up video cameras around the house. An excellent idea, of course.
The directors, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (whose first feature was the 2010 documentary Catfish), bring a fresh enthusiasm to this PA installment. They happily pile on cheap fake-outs in the beginning—characters suddenly popping up in the cameras’ viewfinders, or leaping out of closets in rubbery monster masks (just joking!). They even make use of that ancient kiddie fright-night staple, the spooky figure shrouded in a sheet. But then they get more inventive.
Characters are yanked up into the air or smacked around by unseen forces; spines are snapped (a snazzy effect); and in one startling scene Julie enters a room to find that all of its furnishings—present just moments before—have suddenly vanished. (Then comes the startling part.) There’s a book on demonology, an eruption of pentagrams, a luckless babysitter (Johanna Braddy) who’s not being paid enough for the things she has to endure, and a kindly grandmother (Hallie Foote) who’s not really all that helpful.
The ending is appropriately spooky, even if it doesn’t hook up seamlessly with the subsequent events in the story which we know to follow in PA2. Will the series have to continue prequelling back ever deeper into the past? Finally winding up where? The Salem witch trials, maybe?
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be out on November 8th from St. Martin’s Press. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.