Until the ending, Paranormal Activity is a successful sequel. The film has the usual slow build-up of its predecessors but once things get going, there is a good amount of original techniques and solid scare tactics. Between the time main character Dennis (Christopher Nicolas Smith) starts to suspect something strange is happening, and the time the family moves to another location, things seem to be going pretty smoothly. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (“Catfish”) have a good grip on the kind of film they are making, sticking with the found-footage ideas displayed in the first two films while providing enough elements to make this new sequel stand out.
However, once the aforementioned shift in setting takes place things take on a dramatic change that some might consider lackluster. The film introduces a plot point that had been hinted at but never really elaborated on until now.
The third film in this found-footage horror franchise hits right notes, more of the same notes, and some wrong notes. For the most part it is more of the same, but it improves upon them in different ways. The film takes place in 1988 when the sisters from the last two films, Katie and Kristie, this time played as their young selves by Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown respectively, are just children. In this sense, it’s a prequel to a prequel, as the second film took place before the events of the first film, and this film takes place before either of them. Unlike the second film however, this film won’t catch you up to speed with the aftermath of the film before it. This may be why the ending is such a disappointment. It gives zero closure, and the film ultimately feels like filler between the second film and an inevitable fourth.
Yet, in a way, it makes perfect sense. The franchise could end here and let us be the judge of what will happen with Katie and the baby boy she stole in the second movie. But there is also a certain principle and annoyance involved with the fact that it’s been three movies and the story set up in the first film still has not been resolved. From a viewer’s standpoint, it can make a person impatient. From a storytelling standpoint, it’s a good strategy. Working their way backwards through the timeline has been a unique way of giving us the full back-story, but there comes a point where back-story has to stop and the actual story needs to continue. If there is another entry into the series, the writers and director will have to come back to the end of the second film or risk losing their audience. The back-story to the sisters has been told (for better or for worse), so it’s time to move on.
The question of whether a certain plot point elaborated on at the end of the film was needed or not is still up in the air. In terms of suspense, the film is perhaps the best in the franchise. We don’t really know what is going on and it’s the best use of confusion to scare the audience in the franchise thus far. We feel what the characters are probably feeling with the first person camera technique; it’s hysteria. It still doesn’t change the fact that the anticlimactic ending leaves audiences confused and wanting more.
In the long run, audiences might appreciate the ending. It can’t be criticized too much when there will undoubtedly be another movie that addresses some of these loose ends. But when the camera cut to black and the end credits rolled, at that very moment, some viewers might feel cheated.
What the film does well, though, is adapt to the era effectively. The coolest use of the camera footage technique thus far in the series is the oscillating fan camera, which allows a good view of the house at different angles at different periods, and it allows for some good scare tactics. At one moment a figure could be seen in the distance, and when the camera makes its way back to that placement, it could be gone. It really builds the tension in a way that the other films didn’t. Since it takes place in 1988, there is only this fan camera, and two others that the film cuts between-the sisters’ bedroom and their mother Julia (Lauren Bittner) and her boyfriend Dennis’s room.
While the fan camera offers something new in terms of frights, there is a lot of the same. Sudden slamming of doors and shadow figures all make their presence known, as do people getting carried across the floor by an unseen force. The final minutes are the scariest, but a certain scene involving the girls’ bedroom was the most intense. And while there are other scenes that give off chills, there is also a large number of scenes that are probably meant to spook, but only got laughter out of the audience.
The acting in these movies has always been pretty average, but the characters still stay likable. This film is no different. Dennis and Julie are the usual couple we’ve seen before in these movies, with Dennis camera-obsessed and paranoid, but ultimately right in his fears, and Julie unwilling to believe anything is wrong when something clearly is. It’s another formulaic technique we’ve come to expect, but they are still likable characters. The addition of the two girls and Denni’s friend Randy (Dustin Ingram) help break up the monotony and provides plenty of comic relief.
“Paranormal Activity 3” is not the best of the series in terms of story. It is the best in terms of new ways to make jump scares not feel so cheap. While this third film definitely has its flaws, what this series is doing with the found footage genre, and horror in general is respectable. While the film is not as scary as it’s made out to be, it definitely has its moments. In the end, it’s a solid movie. While the ending may leave some dazed, we can still look forward to a possible fourth film. If it’s not the final in the series, then this formula will start to spoil.