Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
October 2011

Paranormal Activity 3

Too much of a so-so thing

'Paranormal Activity 3' would have been just fine if the first two hadn't existed; as it is, it's just more of the same

Paranormal Activity 3
Paramount Pictures
Director: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Screenplay: Christopher Landon
Starring: Lauren Bittner, Christopher Nicholas Smith, Jessica Tyler Brown, Chloe Csengery and Dustin Ingram
Rated R / 1 hour, 25 minutes
Opened October 21, 2011
(out of four)

For all there may be to appreciate about Paranormal Activity 3 - the new installment in the massively lucrative franchise that began with a mere five-figure budget - it is held back by this simple fact: There is very little you can actually do with a formula made up entirely of home-video footage.

The films are all ostensibly the same, taking place primarily in a single location and following one character or another as he or she becomes spooked by the noises around the house and decides to set up cameras to capture any lurking spirits red-handed. (Aside: If the forces in question are so powerful, why can't they simply turn off the camera? Or at least disrupt the signal?)

It's a formula that wears thin. One could argue it stretched itself nearly to its limit after just one film, and here we are on the third go-around. Maybe I'm wrong, and maybe there are ways to tweak the franchise's M.O. just enough to keep it fresh. But if there are, no one has discovered them just yet.

The latest to attempt to do so are Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the filmmakers behind Catfish, an unsettling (and much-disputed) documentary that I quite admired. I was surprised to see their names attached to this movie. It makes some sense given their background . . . but then again, this is still the sloppy thirds of a franchise with a rigid blueprint and very little wiggle room. It's not exactly what filmmaking dreams are made of.

To their credit, they create a few striking sequences, taking advantage of the limitations of the series' established style rather than letting it handicap them. The one thing I like about this filmmaking approach - in theory, anyway - is that it requires us to look at the entire frame. Most conventional modern horror films are so straightforward in their scare tactics and suspense-building, they make for a frustratingly uninvolving experience.

But with the way the Paranormal Activity films are set up - where, more often than not, we're looking at a static shot of one room or another - we can't necessarily anticipate where our eyes are supposed to be looking at any given moment, so we have to keep darting around. (The composition itself can telegraph it pretty blatantly, of course, but my point is, it doesn't have to.)

In this way, Joost and Schulman manipulate the technique pretty well at times - certainly better than did their predecessor, Tod Williams, on Paranormal Activity 2. One wrinkle I particularly liked is when one character, realizing that with just one camera for the entire ground floor he's leaving himself with too many blind spots, takes apart the "fan" part of a rotating fan and attaches a camera on top, giving himself a more expansive view.

When we see scenes from that camera, the film is able to tease us a bit, offering with each pan to the left or right the possibility that something is about to happen. Initially, it pans back and forth several times without anything happening at all, offering only a few visual cues that may or may not signal what we should be keeping our eyes. And of course when something finally does happen, it takes place off-screen - the rotating camera just missed it. It's an effective little tease.

The camcorder in question is a late '80s model, as PA3 takes place two decades before the events of the first two. Here, the backstory we've gotten bits and pieces of in the previous entries is fleshed out in more detail. We see Katie and Kristi - played as adults by Katie Featherston and Sprague Grayden - as young girls dealing with what seems to be an imaginary friend with a bit of a temper. (His name is Toby, in case you were wondering.)

Jessica Tyler Brown (who is especially effective) stars as the young Kristi, alongside Chloe Csengery as young Katie. Lauren Bittner plays their foxy mother, Julie, and Christopher Nicholas Smith is her live-in boyfriend and surrogate father to the two daughters. It is he, a semi-professional videographer, who starts to get spooked and decides to set up cameras around the house, thus fulfilling the predetermined aesthetic of the franchise.

Here's a thought: Instead of following this single family tree for each film - where every branch in every generation has the same exact bright idea to set up cameras around their house and catch a ghost in the act - wouldn't the Paranormal Activity films have been better off going in a different direction for each installment? Perhaps with the stories being peripherally related but not dependent on one another? At least that might have given the series a fightin' chance to remain fresh.

The mistake is in the assumption that this specific story and these specific characters are the selling point of the movie, which they're not. The format is the selling point - the brand - not unlike the Muppets, or The Twilight Zone, or even James Bond. An ever-expanding three-movie mythology based around largely dull characters in an exceedingly simple story is not only a waste of effort, but seems completely beside the point.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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