The law of diminishing returns has never made more sense than in the movie industry, especially for the horror genre. Endless sequels watered down what was a great first movie, or perhaps it wasn’t even so great, but it made money. With a dearth of creativity in Hollywood and a general trend that the average movie-going public seems to enjoy sticking with things that are familiar, sequelization has run rampant ever since the slasher genre of the early 80’s took off. Few movies released in recent years would seem to offer a more lucrative path to sequels and a long franchise than Paranormal Activity. Oren Peli’s little independent horror movie was made in 2007 and floated around the festival circuit until being picked up by Paramount, initially so that they could remake it with a bigger budget and more recognizable actors. Luckily reason prevailed and the original film made it to the big screen. Paranormal Activity, made for a mere $15,000, went on to gross over $107 million in the USA alone and another $87 million overseas making it one of the most profitable movies of all time. Much like its spiritual predecessor, The Blair Witch Project, it was impossible not to want to hurry a sequel into production in order to capitalize on this phenomena. Luckily Paramount did not go the same route as the makers of Blair Witch 2 but recognized the found footage style of the original movie was what brought the punters in, much like their release Cloverfield did the previous year. Paranormal Activity 2 did not gross as highly and was not made for as little money as the first but with a worldwide earning of over $177 million on a $3 million budget, another sequel was inevitable.
What was remarkable about Paranormal Activity 2 is despite very much building on and taking advantage of the same ideas and style that made the first film so successful, it was actually a well-made and well-received production that some even preferred to the original. The third in the series, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman known previously for the controversial documentary Catfish, continues the tell the story of the haunting of the sisters Katie and Kristi from 1 and 2, but this time travelling back to 1988 where we meet then again as young children. Living with their mother Julie and her boyfriend Dennis, everything seems like the regular goings-on of a normal family, except that Kristi seems a little withdrawn at times. That’s because she has an imaginary friend, Toby, and it’s not long before strange things start to happen in the house. Dennis’ job is that of a wedding videographer, so he takes his VHS camcorders and sets them up around their house hoping to catch some of the phenomena they’re experiencing. As one would expect things begin to escalate to terrifying levels and the viewer is given a small glimpse into the origins of the hauntings and what caused the fate of this most unfortunate family.
Lets get this out of the way now, if you did not like the other 2 movies in this series and do not normally enjoy “found footage” style movies, Paranormal Activity 3 is not going to be some revelation that will change your mind. However fans of the series should emerge from the darkness extremely happy because quite inexplicably, and unprecedented for a horror franchise, Paranormal Activity has avoided a shitty sequel twice now. This film indulges in all of the trickery that made the first two films so compelling and scary, small noises, shadows, inanimate objects moving, the usual slow build to the larger scares. While Paranormal Activity 2 distinguished itself from the first one with the use of fixed-position security cameras, the more low-fi approach taken by Dennis created, at least for this scribe, one of the most tension-ratcheting gimmicks of the series so far. Only having access to late-80’s video technology meant Dennis had to be creative and does so with the use of an oscillating fan with a camera attached to the top of it. This allowed him to monitor both the living area and the dining area at the same time. This results in agonizing moments as the camera slooooowwwwwwwly travels back and forth between the two viewpoints as the camera moves by the large supporting wall separating the two walls. This leads to one of the best scare tricks in the whole film and is well worth the payoff. There are also some of the touches that made the first film so chilling, especially scenes that take place while the characters are sleeping, afterall this is where we are at our most vulnerable.
Also beneficial to the film is a solid cast and characters that were at the very least somewhat likable, certainly moreso than the previous film. Films like this are very dependant on characters that the audience can connect with and like so that they may vicariously live through them and experience what they are experiencing. Of particular note are the child actresses, Chloe Csengery plays Katie well and fills the role of the older sibling well and Jessica Tyler Brown was fantastic as the young Kristi. Jessica is able to be convincing talking to and interacting with a completely invisible character and is cute enough to engage the audience and generate a lot of sympathy. Paranormal Activity 3 is also better-paced than the previous sequel, which escalated the scares a little too quickly for my liking, which makes the last 20 minutes or so possibly the scariest of the series overall. This film also nicely progresses the mythology of the series without having to have heavyhanded exposition explaining it to you, it gives you the bare minimum so that you still have that other aspect of things that makes stuff scary – the unknown.
If there are any complaints to be had here, firstly the introduction to the film that sets up the premise feels very hokey. Also, by the end of the film the idea that the camera would still be running by this point is stretching credibility more then in either of the other movies in the series. This also begs the question, where those this franchise go from here? In the opening weekend Paranormal Activity 3 has made over $52 million, breaking records and guaranteeing that there will be a number 4 on the way. Where does one take this franchise? The limits of technology means that travelling back further in time would be highly problematic. Can they do much more with this story? Perhaps they can wring a story out of a surviving character from 2 but beyond that, its difficult to see how this series cannot lapse into obsolescence. But this is the horror genre afterall, how many Friday the 13th movies after Friday the 13th: the Final Chapter? Too many, but as long as the Paranormal Activity movies keep up this high quality and continue to be this thrilling and entertaining, I’ll keep going to see them.