Paranormal Activity 3 offers a scarcity of new tricks on the found-footage front, but it clearly asserts two things. The involvement of directorial team Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman retroactively reinforces that their Catfish was just a ruse, and these films have become just like the Saw franchise they appear to have killed off, sans the gore and gimmicky kills.
See, PA3 relies on the same rickety revisionist screenwriting that kept Saw breathing after brain death. That’s a bummer, too, because certain parts of PA3 are the best the series has offered so far — genuinely good gotchas, a sense of humor, the first male character who’s not a complete douche.
That guy is Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), a videographer who has squeezed his editing bay into the garage of his girlfriend, Julie (Lauren Bittner). Dennis doesn’t have much going for him occupationally, but he is a good surrogate dad to Julie’s daughters, Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) — the same sisters plagued by a pissed-off demon as adults in parts one and two. So, PA3 is the second straight in the series to jump back in time — this one returning to the supernatural shenanigans of the girls’ childhoods briefly referenced before.
The premise for plastering a home with cameras this time is … a sex tape. At least it starts that way, as Dennis convinces a joint-smoking Julie to get her freak on in a fairly innocuous way (and instigating the only modestly titillating moments these movies have had). But then an earthquake hits, the camera topples and drywall dust settles on some sort of shape. Couple that with a sleepwalking Kristi, who insists her imaginary friend Toby isn’t imaginary, and Dennis sets up three cameras to constantly record in their cavernous Carlsbad home.
For one of them, Dennis rips apart a house fan and uses its oscillating base to pan between the kitchen and the foyer. It’s a simple but sinisterly effective trick that lets Joost and Schulman borrow the stalking, scanning terror of The Strangers if never its true wages of fear. And although their direction is more deliberate, Joost and Schulman’s jaunty analog hack on the slow-burn expectations of this series still offers fun in concentrated bursts.
Toby, as it were, takes eerie offense to being characterized as a cheesy white-sheeted ghost. Dustin Ingram (as Dennis’s gangly assistant, Randy) delivers a deft frayed-edge performance during a game of “Bloody Mary” that turns wicked fast. Joost and Schulman even get the audience to jump along with a mere warp in the VHS tape. But we all know what happens after the walls start shaking and the earth starts quaking. And boy, is the mind aching once PA3 ramps up the cut-rate CG and the musty mythology about how the curse came to be. In short order, it’s puttering toward an anticlimactic ending that’s far less nasty than either of its predecessors and, without being spoilerish, may conjure thoughts of a certain type of wood or an exorcism. Plus, it plays out at a location so purposefully weird that it saps surprise and suspense.
The best that can be said of PA3’s ending is that it doesn’t leave a trail of sequel bait to Paranormal Activity 4: The College Years. But the bubble on this communal fright-fest has definitely popped.