Fantastic Fest Review: Final Secret Screening of 'Paranormal Activity 3'
by Jeremy Kirk
September 29, 2011
Paranormal Activity 3 was shown as the last Fantastic Fest midnight secret screening. It was presented by co-directors Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, and star Katie Featherstone as an unfinished film. The audience was told the sound was not finished. However, judging by the trailer for the film released earlier in the week and how little footage in that trailer was actually seen in the version of the film we saw last night, one can't help but wonder if more work is to be done before its October 21st release. Either scenes will be put back in for paying audiences to see or Paramount purposefully released a trailer showing as little of the real film as possible. Regardless, I for one will certainly be seeing the film opening weekend to see what, if anything, has changed.
Those behind the Paranormal Activity franchise made a wise decision going into the second film. Instead of pushing the story forward and following a now-possessed character, instead of supplanting the structure of strange noises and people getting pulled down hallways to a completely new set of characters, they decided to go back. Granted, Paranormal Activity 2 didn't work, but it's not because it was a prequel nor was it because it decided to expand on the mythology behind Katie, Kristi, and the demon who has haunted them since childhood. Paranormal Activity 2 didn't work, because it was more of the same, still shot on a room, try to see what's happening somewhere in the background, move on, maybe get the occasional boo-got-ya door swinging open or shut. It had the overall story served, but the structure, after only two films, felt tired.
Thankfully the people behind Paranormal Activity 3 realized this, knew what worked and continued with it and realized what didn't and fixed it. What we end up with is a film that creates as well as expands on interesting characters, builds an overall backbone of narrative for fans of the series to discuss after leaving the theater, and rivals the first in terms of scares. Paranormal Activity 3 will have you jostled in your seat, and that's for most of the film's running time, all the way until the final 10-15 minutes when your eyes are locked on the screen, the tension and atmosphere grows heavy in your chest, and the darkened theater you sit in doesn't quite feel safe any more.
For this third outing, we go even further back in time, this time to 1988 when Katie and Kristi are young girls living with their mother and her new boyfriend. The boyfriend likens himself an amateur filmmaker, even shooting wedding videos for a living. So when Kristi begins talking to her imaginary friend, Toby, and things begin to grow weird around the house, he sets up cameras to try and capture evidence of something a little more than normal occurring.
The technical aspects of it all are where the suspension of disbelief has to come into play if you're going to enjoy Paranormal Activity 3. Not only the way the boyfriends' cameras work or how long he would have to actually sit to watch all of the tapes - this is brought up but discarded with little explanation - but the same tropes that always befall found footage movies. It isn't too far into the film where you're yelling at the characters on screen to "drop the damn camera", but they never do. It's come to the point where you don't even need an explanation for it any more. It just has to be accepted for the sake of a fun, scary film.
Which is precisely what Paranormal Activity 3 is. It isn't trying too hard for believability. If it were a beached submarine it wouldn't be more on the surface. But what it is, what it tries to do, it succeeds far greater than the second film, maybe as good as the first. Joost and Schulman - the directors of Catfish - have a way with composition, the way their cameras pick up reflection and depth in the rooms of this house. The corners of the home provide plenty of places for someone or something to be hiding, and none of that is a happy accident. Instead, every inch of this house is used to either scare the audience with what is seen or build the tension with what might be lurking just off camera.
An added element this time around is a camera the boyfriend has rigged to an oscillating fan that moves its view from the living room to the kitchen. Just that slow movement from one room to another is enough to make your eyes divert to the edge of the screen, just waiting for what might be in frame at any second.
Effective yet surface-level scares wouldn't even work without some kind of story, and the mythology for these two girls and what is happening to them is expanded upon in new and incredibly interesting ways. It's a benefit and a hindrance that this is the direction the franchise has taken. Oren Peli's original film was simplistic. A woman is haunted by a demon. She doesn't know why. There's no way to stop it. It was terrifying in its simplicity, the idea that this woman was chosen for no reason whatsoever and there's nothing she can do about it. But at this point, with the idea looming that the series builds on the mythology rather than progress the story, all notions of simple have been pulled into the darkness. That truly is a hindrance if what we're given isn't effective, but the mythology building in Paranormal Activity 3 has become as interesting as trying to sort out how certain scares were even pulled off.
They've probably hit the best stride with the third outing, a clear indicator there are far more Paranormal Activity entries to go and an absolutely haunting supernatural movie to boot. The demon may be on its way to jumping over the salt line, but with Paranormal Activity 3, the franchise is just getting started.
Jeremy's Fantastic Fest Rating: 8 out of 10