Review: ‘Paranormal Activity 3’ expands the mythology, ups the scale of scares

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me mention this already, but it’s worth repeating in light of the film we saw tonight at Fantastic Fest’s Secret Screening #2 at midnight.

Every time I’m in Austin, I stay with my friends Aaron and Kaela.  They are, simply put, some of the nicest people I know, always warm, always good company.  After this many years, they feel like part of the extended family.  I always feel more relaxed during the grind of a festival when I’m home at their house.  That guest room really does feel like a home away from home.

The other night, between writing two reviews, posting them, driving across Austin, and everything else, I got to bed at almost 5:00 AM.  Maybe even a little bit after.  And last thing I did, I used the restroom, washed my face, brushed my teeth.  Nothing out of the ordinary.

I had to get up at 10:00 AM, and when I did, I headed into the bathroom, first thing.  Keep in mind, this is the second floor of the house, and I have a bathroom attached to the bedroom that also opens into the second floor hallway.  And when I walked in, there was a big yellow envelope waiting for me with my name on it.

And inside, a videotape.  A handwritten label.  “September 1988.”

And no one else was home.

Nicely played, Paramount.  And at that point, I had a pretty good idea we’d be seeing “Paranormal Activity 3” at the Secret Screening.  Sure enough, when Tim League took the stage tonight to introduce the movie, still dressed in spectacular evening wear from the formal prom taking place at the Highball tonight, he brought up filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, and they were joined by Katie Featherston at her most adorable, gushing about being a Texas girl and how much she loves Austin.  They were fairly quick with their introduction, and then the movie was on.

Makes sense.  After all, “Paranormal Activity” got its launch at Fantastic Fest in 2009.  And then “Paranormal Activity 2” pulled a viral stunt for the film at Fantastic Fest last year.  And now, here’s the third one.  I think it’s only logical at this point, right?

It’s not really fair to call Katie Featherston “the star” of this movie.  She appears in about four minutes of film at the start.  In it, she brings over a box of video tapes to the home of her sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and leaves them, and Kristi sorts through some of them, all of this being filmed by her husband Daniel (Brian Boland).  They’re the couple that were focused on in “Paranormal Activity 2” last year.  

I like this seriesI like the sort of horror it represents.  I like the audiences it seems to attract, audiences that aren’t typical horror audiences.  I like that it killed the “Saw” franchise.  Sorry, but I am.  I like ghosts more than I like people torturing other people.  I like being in a theater watching a haunted house movie that’s working on audiences and I like hearing screams and seeing jumps and the nervous laughter after something works.  I like that.  That’s one of the things that attracts me to horror.  It’s not the only flavor of horror, of course, but it’s one that can play to a wide audience because it’s not about being explicit or gross.

I’m going to have to go back now and watch part one and part two again before I can feel like I’ve totally digested this one, because there are some things that happen in this film that are so big that it makes me wonder how these characters grow up into the Katie and Kristi that we saw in the first two films.  Sure, in the first film, Katie gets creeped out because she says she’s experienced some weird things before in her life.  But what we see in this one goes way beyond what I would think she could suppress enough to even try for a normal life later.

This film takes place in 1988, when Katie and Kristie’s mother is living with her boyfriend.  I would use the names of the actors in the film, but they’re not listed anywhere yet.  Mom is sort of a free spirit, the cool mom in the neighborhood, the one who smokes a little pot and probably gets a little shitfaced at the local parties and most of the other moms privately hate how good she looks in mom jeans.  Her boyfriend makes wedding videos, and he’s a genuinely good guy.  He seems to love both Katie and Kristi, and vice versa.  It’s a happy home.

Problem is Kristi has an imaginary friend named Toby.  And Toby is, bluntly stated, a sonofabitch.

Sure enough, after a few strange occurrences including a memorable early gag involving an earthquake, the Boyfriend decides he’s got to start filming where they sleep.  What follows are about two weeks of daytime/nighttime set-ups and pay-offs delivered in a style that will feel very familiar to anyone who’s seen the first two films.  These movies are all about rhythm, and they each do it differently.  The first is the most simple.  The second is very complicated, and the rhythm came from the cutting from one camera to the next, a pattern that we followed over and over looking for the disruption.  And this time, there are a few locations with cameras, and one in particular on an oscillating fan base that is used for some scares that are built around what gets revealed each time the fan moves from one side to another.

It is effective, no doubt about it.  Joost and Schulman were the filmmakers behind “Catfish,” and this film manages to play its tone fairly realistic.  I like their use of ambient sound, and I think they stage many of the scares very well.  There’s an early fake-out that is wildly effective, and it feels to me like they decided to be very aggressive about how far they’d push things.  The film makes a few big moves early on, and then as it progresses, it definitely keeps turning up the intensity and the reality.  I have some logic issues about why certain things are being films and who’s doing the filming, issues that are somewhat inherent to the idea of a found footage movie, and I have some other questions that have to do with continuity between the movies.  But overall, it feels to me like this is exactly the sort of escalation that has to happen for audiences to walk away happy after this one.  It has to get bigger and more overt.  And they have to start dropping in some big pieces of the mythology, which they do with the help of screenwriter Christopher B. Landon.

The last ten or fifteen minutes of the film is where they really let it all swing, and it’s a lot of fun to watch how they stage it and how they play it and what the reality of the film is.  Some of the jumps are predictable, but they throw so much at the audience that it feels like they just plain want to please.  If this was the last of the “Paranormal Activity” films, it would feel like they’d pretty much wrapped it all up.  There are certainly story threads here that have been placed so that the franchise can continue to grow, but I sort of like this as a really bleak ending to a series of films about the same characters and what’s been happening to them since childhood.  If they do make another film, I feel like they have to finally come back to follow Katie’s story again, especially after the end of “PA2.”  I don’t like either of the adult leads in this one as much as I liked Katie or the adult Kristi, and it feels like they’ve set up things they have to resolve at the end of the second film, while this film sort of neatly wraps up this early chapter of things in a very bleak and blunt way.

If you didn’t like the first two films, I don’t think this is the one that will win you over, but if you’ve been having fun with these shamelessly eager to please horror movies, then I suspect you’ll enjoy this one as well.  I think I have more questions about this one than either of the others, but it should absolutely please the audiences that are sure to show up in droves on opening weekend, giving Paramount good word of mouth and a shot at keeping this series going for at least one more year.

“Paranormal Activity 3” opens in theaters everywhere October 21, 2011.