OCTOBER 21, 2011
They used my quotes for like 2 years as they worked to get the first film into theaters, but didn’t even invite me to a press screening of Paranormal Activity 3 – way to pay it forward or whatever, Paramount! But seeing this sort of movie is more entertaining with a crowd of people who want to be there, not lame critics and other industry types. I may be a bit numb to the scares at this point, but the crowd was not, and there was a huge reaction to nearly every scare in the movie (hell even the trailer for The Devil Inside caused some shrieks), which added to my enjoyment.
Indeed, only two of the scares made me jump this time around, which is much less than either of the previous films. It made me wish that the lesser Paranormal Activity 2 didn’t exist, because I feel that this film, which has a better story and characters than the 2nd, would have also been a lot scarier for me if I hadn’t already seen a lot of these sort of scares in two previous entries. For example, there’s a cool kitchen scare late in the movie that SHOULD have made me jump like everyone else, but instead I was too prepared for it, since it was obviously an attempt to replicate what was one of the best scares in the 2nd movie.
And one of those two good jolts was actually a fake scare, something that the first film never really resorted to that I can recall. There are actually a few of them here, and while that one is a fun BOO! moment, it’s still a bit of a shame that they had to go to that well because so many scares were “used up” in the dull 2nd film. But what it lacked in successful jump scares (to me) it made up for more tension in the story, which takes place in 1988 and thus manages to largely avoid the inherent prequel problem (spoiler: the adult stars of the previous entries do not die as children) by putting the mother, stepfather, and his business partner in danger far more often than the children. As these characters haven’t been mentioned much/at all, there IS some suspense as to whether or not they live, particularly the Joel Moore-esque partner, who has to babysit Katie at one point and thus becomes the center potential victim of a pretty tense sequence. Ditto an actual babysitter (a hot blonde, of course), who gets to star in a sequence that is seemingly inspired by Halloween.
See, one of my biggest problems with PA2 was that it took place so close to the events of the first film, it pretty much ensured that none of the characters would meet any serious harm, or else it wouldn’t have worked, a major event wouldn't have gone unmentioned. It's the inherent problem with prequels - you're shackled to telling a story that has to believably lead up to the one that's already there. But here, with 20 years’ time gone by and the fact that by now we know that Katie and Kristy apparently suffer from amnesia or PTSD, it doesn’t suffer from that same handicap. I mean, who remembers their dad’s buddy after 20 years? On that note, we STILL haven’t seen the fire that was mentioned in the first movie, so I guess PA4 will be yet another prequel.
The story is much more interesting this time around. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not some complicated Saw-style plot, but we do get some answers about the origin of the ghost/demon/whatever, and the use of cameras actually makes more sense – the stepfather is a wedding videographer, so he would have a couple of cameras and a huge supply of tapes at his disposal. And there are fewer hand held scenes; the three cameras are in their default places for at least 2/3 of the movie, and at no point does someone get scared and then run back for a camera (well maybe the end sequence, but it’s the climax and it’s awesome, so I’ll forgive it). But that doesn’t mean they are stationary – in the film’s most ingenious idea, he puts one on the base of an oscillating fan, allowing it to pan back and forth between the living room and kitchen on its own. As you can imagine, these shots provide the film’s most hectic “scan your eyes around looking for stuff” moments, because you KNOW they wouldn’t bother doing it unless they planned to purposely screw with the audience by panning away from potential action.
Also, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (who made Catfish, a movie I wanted to see until Community spoiled it for me) don’t waste as much time as Tod Williams in the 2nd film (no pool filters here!). We don’t see every night, just the ones where something of note happens, and there are very few scenes that deflate on nothing rather than build toward a scare (probably why there are so many fake ones). I wish they were a little more faithful to the period technology limitations though – not only is the image quite sharp (and widescreen) for what is supposed to be a VHS camcorder, but it seems they could have built in some of the format’s shortcomings for scares. For example, I remember trying to shoot stuff with my dad’s camcorder in low light and producing a largely black image, yet our guy does it here all the time and we can always see exactly what is happening. I don’t know if Paramount vetoed the idea or if they just didn’t care, but it feels like a missed opportunity.
Otherwise the period setting is fairly convincing; a Teddy Ruxpin doll makes a few appearances (at one point the camera is dropped in front of him, giving us full frame Ruxpin for a few seconds – it’s possibly the most unnerving shot in the movie), and I almost cheered at the cereal box with the “Monster Footprints” prize inside – I totally had a set or two of those! The technology they show/use is accurate (god, those giant box shaped projection TVs are not missed), and at one point the characters argue about Back To The Future’s slightly misleading title (“It should be Back To The Present”), which I liked because it was a movie from 1985, not 1988. It drives me nuts when I see a period movie where everything mentioned/shown is from that SPECIFIC year, as if people didn’t still discuss movies or songs from a couple years before on a regular basis. It means nothing in the grand scheme of things, but it shows that even though the movie was rushed (they only started shooting in June) they were still putting some real thought into it.
But like I said, we still haven’t seen the fire, so they’re obviously saving stuff for future entries. At this point I wish they’d stop going back in time; it worked here but how much further back can they go next time and retain the suspense? And how will they come up with yet another excuse for the video footage? Perhaps it’s time to make a true sequel to the original movie. Indeed, whenever the movie got a bit slow I couldn’t help but wonder if they made the right call by trying to create a mythology out of what was a very simple story in the first movie. The series isn’t called “Katie” – it has a very vague title that could have been applied to an anthology series of films about folks dealing with ghosts (and cameras). The Final Destination series has done pretty well for itself by focusing on entirely different people each time out (a necessity since they’re all dead); there’s no reason why they couldn’t have made the same gamble here, with a far less risky financial investment (this one only cost 5 mil – it made more than that just at midnight last night). But now it’s too late; like Halloween III found out in 1982, once you establish the “star” of a series, you’re stuck with him/her/it. Besides, this one opens up new questions anyway, so a 4th film would HAVE to follow up on it or else the fans will be out for blood. Kind of a bummer; I know they took Saw’s place at the box office – now it seems they’re going to take away its “Horror’s Most Serialized Franchise” title too.
Again, if the 2nd film didn’t exist I’d be even more impressed with this one. It improves on most levels and has a fantastic climax with a fun (and unexpected) reveal. But there’s only so many times I can see folks being dragged across the floor by an unseen force before it loses its luster, and the increasingly dense storyline threatens to distract from the very thing that made the original work so well for me – a simple, “this could be me” feeling. When I sit down for 4, it will be to get the new story parts – at this point I don’t think subsequent entries will be able to really scare me like the first one did.
What say you?
P.S. A good chunk of the footage in the trailer is not in the movie, and at least three credited actors in the end credits do not even appear. Just a heads up; I'm not suggesting you wait for DVD, since the crowd experience adds so much of the fun, but it should be noted all the same in case you were really looking forward to any of those scenes with context.