Saturday, November 19, 2011

Paranormal Activity 3 (Film Review)

[To read last year's review of Paranormal Activity 2, click here.]

Paranormal Activity 3 (Paramount, 2011; Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman)

The strength of Paranormal Activity 2 lay in its ability to adhere to formula while also offering original twists.  PA2 presented more characters, more characters, more mayhem, and ingeniously altered viewers' understanding of the events of the first film.  Paranormal Activity 3 doesn't quite have the same revisionary power, but nonetheless succeeds as a vehicle of terror.

Recapturing the intimate feel of the original, PA3 takes us back into the bedroom (of the children and their parents, respectively).  This strategic camera placement intensifies the frisson by reminding us that sleeping is a state of personal vulnerability--to lie down is to let our guard down.  The cleverest viewpoint PA3 furnishes, though, is a slow-moving scan of the living room and kitchen, achieved by the rigging of a video camera atop an oscillating fan.  Dread inevitably builds during the perpetual pendulating between rooms, as viewers anticipate the appearance of something awful ahead as well as the sound of something unnerving behind.  Veterans of the film series know full well the gotcha! moments are coming, yet these incidents still manage to prove truly startling (I don't want to give too much away, but let's just say there's a kitchen scene here even more jolting than the one in PA2).

While the scares are skillfully delivered, they are hampered by a certain lack of narrative logic.  There was a determined malev-olence and aggressiveness to the unseen demon's acts in the first film that made the scenario even more frightening.  Here in the third installment, though, the motivation of the paranormal entity has grown murky.  At times it seems to be messing with the family just for the hell of it.

The other shortcoming of PA3 stems from its framing as a prequel that hearkens back to Katie and Kristi's childhood. It's hard to really fear for the girls' safety, knowing that they will both survive into (an albeit troubled) adulthood.  That realization, in turn, makes it fairly obvious which characters will meet a dire fate in PA3's climax.  Most regrettably, the film's setting leaves little room for Katie Featherston, the series' most recognizable figure.  The actress--who's given about as many lines as the Teddy Ruxpin doll in the girls' bedroom--is limited here to an appearance in a limp prologue scene.

As reflected by the lack of plot summary in this review, PA3 is short on storyline--what little backstory that is given here comes mostly through quick snippets of expository dialogue.  But the film is long on suspense and ominous atmosphere, and I admittedly left the theater flush with the adrenalin rush that a good horror movie provides.  I also left with a sense that the series' premise has been stretched to the limit at this point.  Thrill-seekers (and fans of the first two films) certainly will not be disappointed by PA3, but our worst fear going forward should be of further Activity next October.

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