October 22, 2011

THE SHOWBUZZDAILY REVIEW: “Paranormal Activity 3”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3:  Worth A Ticket – More Minimalist Bumps In the Dark


The PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise is a movie studio’s dream come true.  The concept itself demands a no-star cast, a very limited number of settings and a bare minimum of special effects (the third and latest entry in the series cost a franchise-high $5M) and the storytelling gimmick is so clear and well-known by now that a relatively low marketing spend is all that’s required.  All the filmmakers have to do is not screw the thing up, and fresh directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (they were behind the internet documentary(?) Catfish) have managed that very neatly.


Until its last 15 minutes, Paranormal Activity 3 is much the same as 1 and 2, with just a few new twists.  Viewers of the earlier movies will remember that they revolved around sisters Katie (Katie Featherstone), and Krista (Sprague Grayden), and the spirits that mess up their houses and lives.  In Paranormal 3, a brief prologue set shortly before the events of the other two movies has Katie bringing a box of old VHS tapes from their childhood to Krista’s house; the rest of the movie is what took place on those tapes, in 1988.


As before, the setting is an entirely banal house, where strange noises and movements start to occur.  The contrivance justifying the “found footage” (there’s little attempt to pretend that the footage we’re watching was shot on a 1988 camcorder rather than digitally) is that Katie and Krista’s stepdad Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) is a wedding videographer, so his response to the mystery is to monitor whatever’s going on by planting cameras in the bedroom he shares with the girls’ mom Julie (Lauren Bittner), as well as in little Katie and Krista’s room (as kids, they’re played by Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown)–and one more.  In a touch that pays terrific dividends for the movie, he rigs the base of Julie’s oscillating fan with a camera, so like an old department store surveillance system, it verrrry slowly semi-rotates from the living room to the kitchen and back again, over and over.  This allows for Joost and Schulman to pull off some marvelously timed effects as we wait tensely for the camera to get back to the room where we know something is about to happen; throughout the picture, the directors do a great job of using silence and framing to set off the scares.  (In its simplicity and almost ascetic visual style, Paranormal is the haunted house antithesis of American Horror Story.)

Until the final reel, the events of Paranormal 3 are mostly the same jolts we’re used to:  suddenly slamming doors, objects that bounce around without warning, lights that shatter.  The main innovation of Christopher Landon’s script (he also wrote the second installment of the series) is that little Kristi, has an imaginary playmate Toby who’s a good deal less friendly than Danny’s invisible friend Tony in The Shining.


This eventually leads to what will be the one debatable aspect of Paranormal 3:  the last reel.  When the studio and producers decided to make the original film’s sequel about the same family, rather than telling an entirely separate story of another family with supernatural visitations, they had to develop a mythology for the events in the first film, and that mythology ultimately takes over this new installment.  For anyone who wants to apply logic to the series, this leads to all kinds of problems–for one thing, given the events in this picture, the portrayal of the adult Katie and Kristi in the first two movies makes almost no sense, even if they paper it over with “their memories were erased.”  For another, the more inexplicable events are explained, the less irrationally terrifying they get (and this particular back-story is neither original nor all that interesting).  On the other hand, simply having the same things happen to the same family repeatedly without any explanation could only take the series so far, and there’s no question that the last section of Paranormal 3 works.

Since it’s clear even from opening day grosses that Paranormal 3 will be more than successful enough to require a fourth installment, the interesting question will be where the series goes from here.  It may be time to expand the scope of the franchise, but that could create risk in what has been, until now, a virtual studio annuity.  We’ll surely find out in just about a year; as long as they don’t make it in 3D…

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."