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Entries in Paranormal Activity 3 [2011] (1)

Monday
Oct242011

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

Trashing the Trailer

If you haven't already seen it, do me a favor and watch the Paranormal Activity 3 trailer before reading this review.

You may think that there's no reason to see the full movie now because A) the whole story was spelled out in the preview and B) this is the third PA film in as many years--how many surprises could there be?

Plenty.

First, ninety percent of the scenes in that commercial don't show up in the actual film; nor does the scene from the teaser, in which two little girls record themselves playing "Bloody Mary" in the bathroom. That's right: in a ballsy bait-and-switch, the marketing geniuses at Paramount are promoting their latest horror movie with a trailer full of empty promises.

It's a weird choice, and a welcome one. In this age of ads spelling absolutely everything out, why not go in the opposite direction and make audiences work for their entertainment? Admittedly, my praise for this technique only happened in hindsight. Watching the film expecting to tick off a mental list of key moments, and having none of them show up, was jarring for awhile--until I realized just how thoroughly I'd been had; at which point, the ride was truly on.

Because we're three pictures in, I don't need to dive too far into a synopsis. Two sisters, Katie (Katie Featherston) and Kristi (Spraque Grayden) were, in the previous films, tormented and (presumably) killed by a demon that has haunted their family for generations. Both the first and second PAs offer clues as to what could have caused the disturbance in the first place, but it's in part three that the mystery really opens up.

We flash back to 1988, via a collection of VHS tapes that disappeared from Kristi's basement*, and meet much younger versions of the girls. They live in a large house with their mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner) and her new boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), who's still trying to fit in with a family that lost its patriarch under circumstances that are never explained. Kristi (Chloe Csengery) begins talking to an imaginary friend named Toby, and Katie (Jessica Tyler Brown) makes fun of her until strange things start happening in the house.

Yes, the third movie is the most Poltergeist-like of the series, mostly thanks to its creepy-girl factor. And, honestly, I was pretty bored for most of the first hour due to an over-familiarity with the filmmakers' modus operandi: show several minutes of footage from multiple surveillance cameras that appear to pick up nothing strange; show a light switching on spontaneously or a door shutting on its own; rinse; repeat. Even their attempts to jazz up the formula get botched as genuinely scary ideas are folded into formula:

In one scene, a babysitter reads at the kitchen table while the girls sleep upstairs. The camera, which Dennis cleverly mounted to the swivel mechanism of a modified oscillating fan, pans across the kitchen, living room, and front room door--where we see a figure draped in a white sheet.

Now, if you've never seen a horror movie before, you might be terrified by the fact that the "ghost" draws closer to the babysitter with each camera rotation. But for most genre fans, this will merely be an exercise in patience as you endure the sixty seconds or so of panning back and forth to reach the money shot. The scene's only saving grace is its pay-off, which is then undone by the sitter's oblivious, unrealistic reaction.

How is it, you may wonder, that I can recommend Paranormal Activity 3, despite having so many problems with it? There are two parts to that answer, the first of which brings me back to my original point about the trailer.

Because the PA movies have become so formulaic, much of my brain was engaged in a waiting game during that first hour. The family does mundane stuff. The parents try to make a sex tape. Dennis enlists his business partner, Randy (Dustin Ingram), to help him film the strange things that have been occurring in the house. I'd seen similar things in parts one and two, so now it was just a matter of ticking off scenes from the trailer: the burning house, the specialist who shows up to help the girls, the mom getting thrown into the bedroom.

But none of that happened, and as I felt the movie coming to its climax, I realized none of it would happen. Like the protagonist of a horror movie, I found myself in the dark, with nowhere to run, and without any idea of what might happen next. Whoever cut those trailers had completely yanked the safety net of complacency out from under me.

The second reason this movie works so well is that it takes the story in a different direction than part two. Paranormal Activity 2 is one of the best/worst examples of a cash-cow/cash-in that I can think of. It promises new material (Oh, no! A dog and an infant are in danger!), but delivers nothing new or interesting until the last five minutes. A good amount of part three falls into that same trap, plot-wise, but the climax builds a mythology around a few lines of dialogue from the earlier films and leaves the audience off-kilter.

The last ten minutes of Paranormal Activity 3 are so spooky, depraved, and weird that I forgot I was watching a Paranormal Activity movie in the first place. The ending isn't scary per se but it's unexpected, and that counts for a lot in modern horror films. And the addition of the young girls--both really good actresses--is a welcome change from the series' focus on neurotic adults who should know better than to stick around a house that throws furniture at its owners.

(I'd be remiss in not pointing out how effective the film's real "Bloody Mary" scene is. Aside from the climax, it's the movie's exceptionally bright spot.)

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the trailers were so misleading. Co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman pulled the same shenanigans with last year's critical darling, Catfish--but at least they've actually delivered a horror movie this time. It doesn't really matter who helms these movies, though, as all of the Paranormal Activity films look and function roughly the same. It would be nice if the inevitable but wholly unnecessary part four took the idea in a new direction--the end of part three proves that it's at least possible--but I doubt we'll be so lucky.

Then again, I've been fooled before.

*So, maybe that's the movie's biggest mystery: the tapes were apparently stolen from Kristi's basement by the demon. Yet, the audience is somehow able to watch them, complete with the same titles and editing as were afforded the first two films. Parts one and two make sense, as they are "found footage" movies, but I don't know that the tapes in part three were ever actually found. If so, were they dusted for ectoplasmic residue?