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'Paranormal Activity 3' inventively uses new tricks to scare moviegoers

Those who didn't like the first two movies will just find more of the same, but fans should love the new installment.

By Ben KendrickScreen Rant / October 21, 2011

'Paranormal Activity 3' finds the same spirit haunting sisters Katie and Kristi.

HONS/Paramount Pictures/AP

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It’s hard to imagine that it’s only been two years since our own Kofi Outlaw was among the first film reviewers to screen the original Paranormal Activity – back when the film was only in limited release. At the time, it was unclear whether the found-footage horror flick (which was actually shown in 2007 at the Screamfest Film Festival) would ever see a full-scale release. However, fueled by fan “demand” (literally) the original Paranormal Activity haunted the box office to the tune of $107 million domestically – on a production budget of just $15,000. As a result, it was no surprise when the sequel, Paranormal Activity 2 scored an astounding $41 million in its opening weekend.

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Now, the franchise is back once again with Paranormal Activity 3 – a prequel that fleshes out the story of sisters, Katie and Kristi, who are tormented by an other-worldly presence. This time, however, the movie’s producers recruited a fresh filmmaking duo, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, to handle directorial duties. The pair rocketed to fame after critics, moviegoers, and even network news outlets debated the validity of their 2009 documentary Catfish. Do the sophomore feature filmmakers continue Paranormal Activity‘s successful run or has the found footage series run out of scares?

Fortunately the directors have a batch of new tricks at their disposal (as a result of the 80s timeframe) – as wedding videographer and man of the house, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) comes up with inventive ways to capture the bizarre events occurring in the family’s house. A panning VHS camera (attached to the base of an oscillating fan) offers some of the film’s most tense moments – and definitely improves upon the often static images of the prior installments in the series. The retro backdrop also provides a number of cathartic, and unintentional, laughs – such as the appearance of a fancy “cordless phone.”

The filmmakers have, over the course of the prior movies, managed to deliver a relatively intriguing over-arching mythology – one that is further developed in the third installment. Obviously, as with all these movies, the story isn’t the central focus but it’s good to see the producers and writers at least attempting to weave a somewhat coherent through-line.

While the adult versions of Katie and Kristi (played by Katie Featherston and Sprague Grayden, respectively) are present in the film, the Paranormal Activity 3 story (as mentioned) is actually a prequel to both the 2009 and 2010 plot lines. Instead of forwarding the narrative beyond the events of the prior films, the third installment focuses on Katie and Kristi as children (played by Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown, respectively) - when they first encounter the paranormal presence that later defines and terrorizes their adult lives. As with the last version, this film isn’t likely to address many of the questions left in the wake of Paranormal Activity but it still manages to deliver a compelling addition to the series mythology.

Anyone expecting a change to the franchise formula (such as the often maligned jump from The Blair Witch Project to Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2) or a significant up to the Paranormal Activity 2 ante, may find the storytelling, scares, and visuals of Paranormal Activity 3 to be mostly “more of the same.” The third film definitely features a few moments that could be considered “larger” in scale than prior films; however, the majority of the runtime is still a waiting game that could be underwhelming for certain filmgoers. In general, anyone who has tired of the series’ formula won’t find a fresh variety of scares in the third installment – but that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t a worthy follow-up for moviegoers who still crave the subtle and creepy anticipation that dominates this series format.

As mentioned, 1988 Dennis has far fewer resources than 2006 Daniel Rey (the father in the second installment) – as a result, instead of a high-tech multi-camera montage, the Paranormal Activity 3 set-up is limited to two static shots as well as the aforementioned panning camera. The limitation actually forces the filmmakers to be much more creative, and showcase a lot of variety in what is actually shown in each of the three rooms – instead of relying on a lot of different rooms. The result is a much more “in-your-face” experience – as the cameras are situated lower to the ground (not mounted high above the action) – and audiences will become intimately familiar with what should (and shouldn’t) be happening in each room.

Also, unlike the prior installments (which featured adequate but mostly stilted acting), Paranormal Activity 3 has a solid cast of performers that manage to make good on the scares – as well as inject believable humor into the mix. It’s only fair to point out that this round of actors, specifically the adults, already have significant filmographies behind them – as the producers are no longer concerned with casting unknowns to maintain the impression any of the footage might actually be real.

That said, obviously these aren’t Oscar-worthy performances, but all five of the “main” characters – Katie, Krysti, and Dennis as well as mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and family friend, Randy (Dustin Ingram) – deliver surprisingly likable performances in their respective roles. The adults inject plenty of humor and intriguing overarching exposition and the young girls successfully carry the creepier moments of the movie – since they’re often the ones being terrorized by the paranormal “activity.” As a result, compared to prior installments, the world created in these 80s VHS tapes is much more fleshed out and authentic – with real people, not just caricatures and demon fodder, reacting to the increasingly dangerous series of events playing out on screen.

Paranormal Activity 3 doesn’t reinvent the series’ wheel but it definitely refines an already effective format (and ups the ante by adding a few spikes to the rubber). While it’s still unclear where the franchise will go from this point forward, for the time being, the third film will no doubt deliver on (and possibly exceed) expectations. Non-fans of the series won’t find any marked changes to rekindle their interest but anyone who enjoyed either Paranormal Activity or Paranormal Activity 2 will probably consider this film to be scarier, funnier, and ultimately more entertaining than its predecessors.

Ben Kendrick blogs at Screen Rant.

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