What’s scarier? A horror film that makes you scream like a little girl while watching it? Or a horror movie that comes back to haunt you long after you’ve finished it and you’re alone in your dark room trying to get to sleep?
I ask this question because this is the issue I’ve had with “Paranormal Activity.” A film that fits in the “found footage” horror sub-genre that’s been widely overused in the past few years.
Its fatal flaw is lasting appeal. As good as it is at building up suspense and terror, it can’t sustain multiple viewings because its scare tactics are so simple that they become stale after one seeing. This is the problem the first movie had, it’s the problem the sequel had and, I fear, it’s the problem this new installment will have.
“Paranormal Activity 3,” directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman, is a prequel to the supernatural events that took place in first two movies. With prequels it’s usually good and bad. Good, because we get to see the origin of the ghost…or demon…or whatever it is that tormented the two sisters, Katie (Kaite Featherston) and Kristi (Sprague Grayden) from the first two (Katie in the first, Kristi in the second). But bad because we ultimately know where it’s going. We know what happens to the sisters, so the ending, while still surprising isn’t too surprising. Also (and this is the problem I had with the second film) there’s not a lot of difference in the way the story’s told. The same basic structure of gradual tension buildup is still here.
“PA3” takes us back to 1988, when Katie and Kristi are young, living with their mom Julie (Lauren Bitter) and her boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). One day, after an earthquake, the family starts to experience spooky things. So Dennis decides to put a bunch of cameras all around the house to catch the invisible entities in the act because…you know…otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie.
The ghostly activity starts off slow. A couple creaks and moans. A few fake outs. The long, drawn out night sequences, in which we see most of the spookiness as well as some creepy sleepwalking. Then things start to heat up. Objects and people get thrown around and beaten up. During the day, the characters take time to watch, talk and argue about the new footage. There’s a brief scene where we learn about some historical occult ritual involving young girls that will show up later in the movie.
It’s also good to mention that a couple clichés from other ghost movies sneak their way in. Kristi spends a lot of time talking to her imaginary friend Toby (who is actually the ghost). There’s even a scene where the poor babysitter gets tormented.
Now, all of this is hit and miss. There were a few jumpy and clever scenes here and there. Scenes I can’t go into detail about in this review because, really, that’s all this movie has going for it. Let’s just say a game of Bloody Mary goes horribly wrong. But for a majority of the scares you could kind of anticipate when they were going to happen; as a result the movie was sometimes boring. And as for the ending, while shocking, it was a little underwhelming.
To be fair Joost and Shulman deserve some credit. The directors behind last year’s mysterious Facebook documentary (?) “Cat Fish,” do a fine job of making the movie look authentic, adding a bit of wear to the footage, since it’s from the 80’s. Also, all the actors are perfectly convincing (particularly the two girls who play the young Katie and Kristi). Their reactions to the paranormal phenomena don’t feel staged. They reacted like any person aware of ghosts would act.
After watching three of these movies I’ve come to learn that none of them are really scary, or at least not in the same way a movie like “The Shining” is, but more like the kind of fright you experience when you ride a rollercoaster. At the preview screening I attended, every time the audience would scream, laughter would immediately follow. “Paranormal Activity” is the kind of movie you go to see with your friends at the midnight showing to have a fun time, and “PA3” should get the job done. But no need to sleep with the lights on.