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Non-Review Review: Paranormal Activity 3

Part of me wonders how far you can stretch a particular concept. I’m a big fan of the original Paranormal Activity, and I think it’s fair to argue that it was a massive game-changer for low-budget horror, somehow finding a novel twist on the “found footage” genre. However, there’s only so many times a particular trick will work. Paranormal Activity 3 works a lot better than Paranormal Activity 2 ever did, even if it comes with its own set of problems and its own diminishing returns.

Putting this spectre to bed…

One would imagine that the supernatural would always be the biggest barrier to suspension of disbelief in a film like this. After all, this film series is about a demon haunting a Californian family, so it seems like accepting the existence of such a monster would be the biggest logical leap the audience would have to make. That, and the idea that the family would just hang around the house while all this stuff was going on.

However, Paranormal Activity 3 comes with its own set of suspension of disbelief issues. Setting itself up as a prequel, it see the family in question effectively invent the “found footage” genre back in the eighties. So the characters essentially do what their kids would do a few decades later, albeit with less advanced technology. I don’t know why, but it feels like a pretty major stumbling block right out of the gate – it’s strange that this must represent the biggest leapt he audience has to commit to. I couldn’t help but suppress an involuntary eye roll as the hapless husband asked, “Mind if I set up a couple of video cameras around the house?”

Mirror, mirror…

That said, I do like a short sequence where his colleague has to temper his home video enthusiasm, stifling one proposed shot by explaining, “They don’t even make lenses that wide.” And there is a wry self-consciousness to the way that the movie deals with its cameras. At one point, the family takes a quick picture. They do so by putting the camera within the frame, so we get a video of a camera taking a photograph. At another point, the film drafts in a babysitter, as if alluding the almost forgotten genre of the eighties, and even the demon himself proves to have a macabre sense of humour when it comes to freaking her out.

To be fair, by this point, we know what we’re getting ourselves in for. We don’t feel too guilty when a character inevitably refuses to acknowledge the crazy stuff going on. They’ll inevitably come around to it. We know that the creaks and the hints of movement are only really the beginning. It’s up to the film itself to put new twists on that set-up, to give us something a bit different. And, to be fair, the movie does a decent job of it. My favourite novelty is the camera that pans slowly from one side of the room to the other, simultaneously covering the living room and the kitchen, which creates a sort of a metronome to pace the suspense.

Ghost story…

Simultaneously, the decision to involve a pair of children – rather than a baby – in the ensuing chaos makes for something just a little bit creepier. After all, kids are scary. It provides the additional opportunity for suspense, and an excuse to play up the atmosphere. After all, the kids are allowed to be privy to the problems earlier on, because the adults will ignore them. Simultaneously, they’re also allowed to communicate and engage with the spirit – in the form of an imaginary friend named “Tobey” – in a way that the adults can’t.

On the other hand, the film knows immediately where it’s going. We know what’s about to happen. In Paranormal Activity, the film was allowed the opportunity for an intense and gradually escalating build-up to the grisly climax. Now that we’ve seen the climax and know how far the entity will go, there’s little point in following the same pattern. So the film has to counter our expectations. It does some of this quite well – I like two of the wonderful “fake”jump scares as the character play with one another – but it also falters in other areas.

Not kidding around…

The film lets us know, early on, that it’s not messing around. We know already this isn’t a hoax or a series of coincidences, so the film is honest enough to concede that out of the gate. We get a shape visible in falling dust early on, and the happenings just increase from there. It’s a lot more efficient than the approach that the last film adopted. Of course, this presents a bit of a logical problem – our lead character has enough material to pretty much prove the existence of something otherworldly, so it seems just a bit futile for him to sit there and continue recording and watching.

Not that the series has ever been especially concerned with intelligent characters. Our lead here is the same as all other men in the Paranormal Activity universe. He’s so obsessed with his technology that he completely misses what is happening with his family. Of course, his wife refuses to concede anything is wrong, even after he’s amassed enough evidence that he could convince Dana Scully of a demonic presence. However, the special “idiot character bonus prize” goes to Randy, the young adult who decides (knowing there’s something in the house) that it’s a good idea to play “bloody mary” with his boss’ daughter.

Time to reflect…

Still, all that goes with the territory. What matters is the jump scares and the atmosphere. Paranormal Activity 3 does a much better job than its direct predecessor on that front, even if it never quite manages to offer scares quite as unnerving as that very first encounter with the unknown.  I can’t help but feel like everything else – from the characters to the world-building – is just set-dressing. We’re here for the monster, and “Tobey” puts in a better showing here than he did last time.

5 Responses

  1. I pretty much agreed with everything you said here in my review of the film. I would say that the biggest suspension of disbelief that any “found footage” film can ask you to do is accept that anyone would keep filming when they are being chased by spirits or holding a young girl and carrying her away from danger. This always baffles me, I was screaming “drop the camera!”

    • Yep. I just assume that these films are based around douchebags. To be fair, in the first film, at least it was a plot point – Micah was hardly the ideal boyfriend and the incidents were generally ambiguous enough to chalk up to coincidence. (At least until the half-way point). Here it starts big and grows from there.

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