I wasn’t going to give Paranormal Activity 3 a very good review. Then I tried to sleep the night I saw it.
By all accounts, this is the weak entry in the horror series about a family who sets up video cameras to record mysterious bumps in the night while they sleep. Paranormal Activity 3 strains to justify why its characters carry a camera around all the time; it fails to establish the dynamics of the new family at its center; and the ending, which attempts to reveal the mythology driving the entire franchise, takes us into Wicker Man territory more than that of The Blair Witch Project, the pinnacle of this found-footage genre.
Paranormal Activity 3 still haunts, building on the series’ uncanny ability to exploit one of our deepest, unspoken fears: that we’re vulnerable when we sleep. For all its crudeness, the movie stokes the paranoia of the witching hour, when the darkness is deep, shadows are long and our imagination is ignited by the tiniest creak. We’re really expected to peacefully doze with all of this going on?
This prequel is set in 1988, when franchise lynchpin Katie Featherston is a little girl living with her younger sister, her mom and her mom’s videographer boyfriend. Oh, and her sister’s imaginary friend called Toby. You don’t want to make Toby angry.
New directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who made the creepy-in-a-different-way Catfish, are far clumsier than their predecessors when it comes to the framework that surrounds those nighttime scenes. But it doesn’t matter when the lights go down. The video footage captures Kristi – the younger sister – sneaking around the house in the middle of the night, giggling and playing some game with Toby. A babysitter plays “ghost” with the girls using a bed sheet; later the camera captures the bed sheet playing ghost on its own. The mom wakes up hungry for a midnight snack, which unwisely involves use of the garbage disposal.
The one ingenious touch of Paranormal Activity 3 is the placement of one of the surveillance cameras on the base of an oscillating fan, so that we get a slow pan from the kitchen to the family room and back again. It makes for some excruciating tension, especially when the mom sticks her hand in that garbage disposal and the camera robotically pans away. We can’t bear to look, but it’s torture not to have the option.
The movie is much more mercenary than the earlier installments. It’s only interested in delivering the boo! moments, and little else. But those boo moments work. Lying awake around 2:30 a.m. the night after seeing it, I heard one of my young daughters wake up and run to the bathroom. Thankfully she ran back to her room after a few moments. If she had needed help with anything, there was no way I was going to get out of bed.