You may or may not remember 2007’s “Paranormal Activity” or 2010’s “Paranormal Activity 2,” depending on how interested you were in fake reality shows about ghosts and demons or how patient you were getting through them. In 2011’s “Paranormal Activity 3,” we get more of the same.
The premise of the movies involves a Southern California family being haunted by a demon or demons, and they do everything they can think of to find it or at least film it, using handheld video cameras and surveillance cams all over the house. What we found in the last installment was a lot of empty time as we waited for something to happen on the surveillance tape, and then got a few startling moments as doors banged shut. Episode two ended with all hell breaking loose in the final few minutes in a most unconvincing manner. The movie wasn’t awful, just tedious: a long wait for a dubious wrap-up.
When you think about it, these kinds of films are gold mines for studios. Like television reality shows, they don’t require much in the way of scripts, sets, costumes, special effects, direction, or acting. Indeed, the more amateurish they look, the better they work as slices of so-called “real” life. So they cost relatively little to make and promise huge returns at the box office if they can be scary enough. “The Blair Witch Project” seems to have been the progenitor of these things, so you know who to blame and the kind of thing you’re in for if you didn’t already see the first two “Paranormal Activity” films.
Anyway, we take up in “Paranormal Activity 3” two decades before the first movie began, a prequel that occurs in 1988. We meet the two sisters, Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown), as children, before they grew up, got married, and experienced the paranormal mischief of movies one and two. The newest movie sort of explains why demons have been following them around since childhood. It doesn’t explain it very well, mind you, but at least it gives you an idea.
Katie and Kristi are living with their mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) and her boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) in the suburban community of Carlsbad, California, during the several weeks of the story. Dennis is a wedding videographer, so he has an array of VHS video cameras at his disposal. When he begins to observe odd happenings in the house–noises and such–he sets up an array of cameras around the place and takes to carrying a video camera with him wherever he goes. The result of all this video handiwork is what we see in the film. It’s a sort of documentary with a wink and a nod; a documentary that wants us to believe in its reality when we know full well it’s just a fiction.
The movie’s formula is the same as before: The family members hear noises, weird stuff starts occurring, things go bump in the night; the camera captures it all, while the audience waits around for something, anything, to please hurry up and happen. Needless to say, much of the camera work is shaky and the edits jerky to simulate a home movie.
As usual, the film depends more on startling us than in genuinely frightening us. Still, that’s enough for a lot of viewers who apparently can’t tell the difference. There are a couple of scenes where people in the film actually jump out of nowhere and yell “Boo!” Yeah, both scenes are startling, but are they scary? Hardly. There are almost no points in the film where the filmmakers even attempt anything like creating tension or suspense. When they do attempt it, the scenes turn out pretty well, like one involving a baby-sitter (Johanna Braddy) and another involving a “Bloody Mary” game. They are truly creepy, and if the writers could have come up with more such creepiness, it would have improved the movie considerably. Unfortunately, they don’t and rely on shock tactics instead.
Also as usual in horror movies, at least one person refuses to believe any of it, in this case the mother, who won’t even look at Dennis’s video footage of possible paranormal activity in the house. When young Kristi starts seeing and talking to an invisible, malevolent entity she calls Toby, the mother dismisses it as childish imagination.
So on we wait for something to happen, with doors opening by themselves, slamming shut, and objects flying around various rooms being the major activities of the first hour. How many times in these movies can the filmmakers repeat the same things before audiences throw up their hands and cry Surrender? Apparently, not enough times if box-office receipts are any indication.
Basically, the film does little for the first eighty minutes or so and then picks up in the final fifteen. However, just as the previous film went off the deep end into mindless Neverland material in its climax, so does “Paranormal Activity 3” jump the shark or nuke the refrigerator in the end. The conclusion is so over-the-top and comes so out of the blue, it pretty much ruins what little believability the movie generated in the beginning. Thus, you take your pick: a slow, boring start with a few promising moments in the middle or a faster-paced but totally ridiculous conclusion.
To add insult to injury, there are scenes in the trailers (see above) that never appear in the final movie. So much for truth in advertising.
One aside about this whole “paranormal activity” business: While I know these movies are just movies, after all, and one should not take them too seriously, the filmmakers do try to pass them off as something approaching reality, as though they were documentaries. So I feel it a minor obligation to point out that actual parapsychologists don’t deal much in theories of demons from hell. If objects fly around a room seemingly on their own–a poltergeist experience–parapsychologists believe the objects move because human agents either physically or psychically move them. That is, live people, not ghosts or demons, almost always instigate poltergeist activity. As a friend of mine, Loyd Auerbach, a noted author, investigator, and researcher of things paranormal, remarked a few years ago in his preface to Movie Met’s Blu-ray review of “Poltergeist”: “If that was the reality of what we investigate and encounter, I certainly would not have stayed in this field for as long as I have. I’m brave, but I’m not stupid!”
Since the filmmakers want us to believe that one of the movie’s characters shot the video we’re watching, they made the image quality look intentionally dull and soft, something like VHS tape footage of the Eighties, despite Paramount’s having transferred it to Blu-ray in high definition on a dual-layer BD50, using an MPEG-4/AVC codec. The thing is, while the picture quality doesn’t look much better than most standard-definition DVD’s, it is probably a lot better than anything we’d see on a VHS tape of the era. Go figure. I’d say the movie likes it both ways.
OK, so the filmmakers want us to believe that what we’re seeing is what the VHS cameras caught in 1988, right? How, then, to explain the film’s surround sound, reproduced here in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1? Did the character shooting all the footage have multiple microphones set up in every room? Sure, it’s only a movie, as I’ve said, so we shouldn’t sweat the details. In any case, the sound is mostly quiet, really quiet because nothing is happing most of the time, and when something does happen, it’s usually loud. The soundtrack works fine in this regard, with a deep, rumbling bass during an earthquake scene; good, quick transient response; wide dynamics; and strong impact. In fact, the sound does most of the work of the scares.
This two-disc Combo Pack contains the feature film in two HD versions on disc one, a Blu-ray: the regular R-rated theatrical version (83 minutes) and an unrated extended version (94 minutes). In addition, the Blu-ray provides three minutes of “Lost Tapes,” additional footage; fourteen scene selections for the unrated version; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages;
English audio descriptions; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The second disc, a DVD, contains the unrated edition of the movie in standard def; access to a digital copy of the unrated version; and access to an UltraViolet edition for instant streaming. The two discs come housed in a flimsy double Eco-case with cutouts front and rear, I assume for ghosts or demons to enter and exit more easily.
“Paranormal Activity 3” is much the same as its predecessors, although more the worse for wear; that is, we’ve been there and done that already. One would think it was time to move on, but I suppose as long as the films make money (and how could they not make money, given their modest budget and prodigious returns? This one grossed over $200,000,000 worldwide on a budget of about $5,000,000), who can blame the studio. If you liked the first two “Paranormal Activity” movies, you’ll probably like this one as well. For me, it was a matter of diminishing returns on a product that wasn’t very good to begin with.