|“Bloody Mary…Bloody Mary…Bloody Mary…Wait! You turned the light on too soon. We have to do it again…” – Young Katie (Chloe Csengery).
As fun, exciting, and dare I say, as innovative as the first two “Paranormal Activity” films have been, do we really need “Paranormal Activity 3″? I mean, how much more “found footage” can there supposedly be? As a fan of the films, I admired the first effort and liked the low-budget and rather novel approach to telling a modernized version of a ghost story. Shot for $15,000, the film was impressive, entertaining, but never all that scary to me. For the follow up, “Paranormal Activity 2″, which served as a prequel of sorts to the events of the first film, felt like much more of the same until the last 10-15 minutes induced some profanity-laced exclamations on my part. While the film was largely comprised of the same pace, rhythm, and cadence of its predecessor, I admit to being lulled in to a sense of contentment, only to have the rug pulled out from under me.
So while others mocked and groaned at the announcement that “PA3″ was on its way, I penciled in the date of October 21, 2011 and was greatly anticipating where “PA3″ would take me. Even as doubts starting creeping in that “PA3″ would not measure up to the precociousness of the first films, it pleases me greatly to report that to the credit of all involved, and almost completely in spite of itself, “Paranormal Activity 3″ is a fantastic little gem. For my sensibilities, this is the most rewarding entry in the series thus far.
Original director, producer, and writer Oren Peli again steps aside and bears the role of producer for this second prequel wherein we travel back to 1988, by way of a brief stop in 2005. Directed by the controversial directors of the 2010 documentary “Catfish”, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, “Paranormal Activity 3″ begins with grown sisters Katie (Katie Featherston) and Kristi Rey (Sprague Grayden) chatting about painting Kristi’s new nursery baby-boy blue for the soon-to-be-born Hunter, who we met in the previous film. Katie, if you recall, is moving into a new house with her boyfriend Micah, and has a few boxes to deliver to unload in Kristi Rey’s basement. One of those boxes is full of old VHS tapes from the girls’ youth, to which Kristi Rey remarks to her husband Daniel that she doesn’t remember any of these videos at all.Transitioning to a faux-VHS appearance, we travel back to September 1988 where Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi Rey (Jessica Tyler Brown) are young girls living with their mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), in their newly purchased house. Dennis works from home and owns a wedding photography and video production business and has a makeshift editing studio set up in the garage. Home pretty much everyday with the girls, Dennis becomes very close with the girls and they forge a father/daughter-like connection with one another.
All seems well in the house until some strange bumps and noises seem to preoccupy Dennis. Always with a camera close by, he tries to find the source of the noises to no avail. Katie seems to simply go about her days and the girls have a sweet temperament. Kristi Rey also spends time talking with and playing with an invisible friend, who she seems to know extremely well. She can identify things her friend likes and does not like and then, most alarmingly to Dennis, she informs him that her friend likes her to keep their conversations a secret.
In much the same vein as the first two films, Dennis decides to set up cameras in the house and document the increasingly strange events that seem to be occurring day after day. Directors Schulman and Joost, along with the script by returning “Paranormal Activity 2″ writer, Christopher Landon, infuse the now trademark “Paranormal Activity” formula with a healthy mix of cheap and funny “gotcha!” scares and some scenes which pay off with unresolved uncertainty. In one memorable scene, Dennis destroys a new fan to mount a camera on in the living room and kitchen area. The oscillating motor is used to great and nerve-wracking effect here and is one of a few ingenious new quirks that Schulman, Joost, and Landon bring to the table. Refined and refreshed in its delivery, the intensity arrives much more efficiently this time around.
For those who have seen the “Paranormal Activity” films, this all sounds familiar. And yet, Christopher Landon’s screenplay works best here in focusing on the vulnerabilities of Katie and Kristi Rey and the increased helplessness Dennis feels in trying to protect them in reaction to what he is capturing on video. There is no doubt that much of this film’s power and resonance lies with the performances of Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown, as Young Katie and Young Kristi Rey, respectively. Brown has disquieting effectiveness in having to interact with her “friend” and Csengery has one tremendous scene where youthful enthusiasm opens a door she never knew existed.
As much as I cringed and sat rapt with attention, I am not naive to some issues that people are perhaps rightfully going to raise with this installment. Of course, the film is presented and exhibited in a format that simply was not available in 1988, thus delivering a deal-breaking error for some viewers. Why does he keep filming and why don’t they leave are yet again fair criticisms to be asked here and some noteworthy chinks in the armor pop up much easier this time around. For really the first time in the series, a few of the lesser scares are telegraphed and lack effectiveness. And one major complaint I heard from a handful of audience members exiting my screening was that almost nothing featured in the trailer happened in the film. While it did not bother me all that much, people did feel cheated a bit by this discovery.
What makes this all work is that producer Oren Peli laid good groundwork, and his collaborators have perpetuated a modernized late night campfire story to the masses. Far from perfect, these films still tap in brilliantly to the most organic and primal fears we carry with us. We love being scared they say, which explains the appeal of horror films. But we don’t like the waiting for the scare…the long drawn out delay in knowing something is coming but having it feel like an eternity must pass before the moment arrives. “PA3″ juggles this queasiness masterfully and people become simply putty in the filmmakers’ hands. Condemn and admonish “PA” all you want, but find me a moviegoing experience like this one. Viewers continue to exhibit a visceral and palpable reaction to what they are seeing and that is flat out impressive to witness, observe, and communally take part in.
Gasps and “Ohmigods” were coming from audience members and a few critics and writers around me at different moments and virtually everyone in attendance were on the collective edge of their seats. With “PA3″, I have to admit I truly felt it too. I was anxious throughout much of the film and this time, I was one of those shifting in my seat, wringing out my hands, fidgeting, and tempering down my heartbeat.
In one brilliantly executed moment, Katie and Kristi race up the stairs to their loft bedroom to grab something and while Kristi runs unfettered across the room, Katie runs smack dab into something invisible, stops cold, and is instantly frightened. As she backs away, she is barely able to speak, stiffly staggering backwards, intently staring up at something and almost frozen in her tracks. She sees something we cannot, but in this scene and throughout “Paranormal Activity 3″, we see fear – hers and ours, and we want to make it all okay. At that moment, I got it..