Beware of spoilers!
Minimalism was the key to Paranormal Activity‘s success, so the sequels’ bigger effects, greater number of cameras, and more convoluted narratives have only been detrimental. Paranormal Activity 3 continues to drag the series down; chronologically, it moves it farther back: this threequel, directed by the vain kids behind Catfish, is yet another prequel, this one set in 1988 and focused on the characters’ childhood relationships with the demon who would continue to haunt and torment them into adulthood. This is one of the franchise’s largest missteps: its increasing focus on backstory.
The other is its aesthetic choices. In this film, for starters, moving the setting so far back becomes problematic. It’s neat, I guess, that the movie is shot on, or at least made to look like, videotape. (It’ll make an interesting companion piece to Trash Humpers.) But it also poses unaddressed practical problems: like, why would someone keep the camera running as he walks slowly up a staircase if he has to pay for VHS cassettes? (Especially when he’s underemployed, living off the largesse of his girlfriend, the mother of Katie and Kristi, heroines of Paranormal Activities One and Two, respectively.) Obviously, just because it’s scarier for us. The frights in the first film were so effective because they exploited the tension of the stationary, uncut shot: edits and camera movement offer a place to hide, so to speak, a release of tension that the franchise’s creator, Oren Peli, refused to provide. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman have developed one new, similarly effective technique here—an oscillating fan jury-rigged as rotating camera stand, which creates its own inherent tension: with steady regularity, it slowly moves away from where we want to look, and slowly back to where we don’t. But the house’s multi-camera set-up, as in the previous installment, allows for too many tension-easing edits, too many escape routes.
The tension doesn’t build in Paranormal Activity 3: it stays level. Previous installments alternated structurally between scenes of daytime exposition and nighttime terror; this one fills the daylight scenes with cheap BOO! scares. (In between these scares, the characters review the tape of the previous night’s paranormal activities: it seems a weird product of our commentary culture, like a built-in VH1 special or blog recap.) Still, you have to give Joost and Shulman credit for a few terrific scenes: for getting serious scares out of a ghost under a sheet, as well as out of a game of “Bloody Mary” (in which you say the eponymous dead woman’s name three times in the dark and she is supposed to appear in the mirror). But it also lazily exploits our concern for imperiled children (which the last movie did, too), as well as the potential creepiness of little girls.
The movie is full of females—little girls, a middle-aged mom, a grandmother—because to some extent it’s about gender. The first film dealt with the romantic problems of young adults; the second was an attack on the selfishness inherent in materialism. This third one is weirdly sexual: wait for the image of the demon slithering up under one little girl’s sheets while she sleeps. The demon, referred to by the family as the youngest girl’s imaginary friend, acts like an abusive boyfriend: young Kristi can see and speak with the demon—a talent usually reserved in these movies for psychics, Latinos, or dogs—but she’s reluctant to talk with anyone else about what he tells her; she’s not worried for her safety, exactly, but she’s not not worried for her safety. In Christopher Landon’s screenplay, the women don’t take their revenge on this abusive man; instead, they serve him as an evil coven of distaff man-eaters who target some poor nice guy as their sacrificial victim. Such a portrayal struck me as misogynistic—and it can’t bode well when the first comparison that a movie springs to mind is to Neil Labute’s The Wicker Man.