Silver Screen: Paranormal Activity III ***1/2
After two sequels, the template for the Paranormal Activity films is pretty much locked in. With its low budget, lack of stars, rapid-fire release dates (one per year, around Halloween), and strict adherence to a formula, it's officially taken over for Saw in the seasonal rotation. The big difference here is that the formula for Paranormal Activity is far richer and more interesting, and even when the beats are familiar the experience is only moderately dulled.
In case you're uninitiated-- and if that is the case, you're better off skipping Part III until you see the first two-- the formula is this: Minor but creepy disturbances in a couple's home unsettle them enough that the man of the house sets up some video cameras to record the goings on in the night. The film is composed of the edited footage, posed as a sort of documentary without any narration or exposition, taken almost entirely from these still-camera shots, which evidence the escalating horror as an invisible demon grows increasingly bold and malevolent.
The first Paranormal Activity centered on Katie (Katie Featherston), who was harassed by the demon as a child alongside her younger sister, Kristi (Sprague Grayden), and who became the demon's target for the second time in adulthood. The second film shed light on why the otherworldly beast returned to torment her by focusing on the events of a year prior, when the creature came back for Kristi, now a young mother.
The third installment delves even further back into the mythology, back to 1988 when the sisters were preteen girls. The camera operator in question here is Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), the live-in boyfriend of their mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner). Mom's boyfriend is ever-so-conveniently a wedding videographer (explaining the availability of home-use film equipment in the Reagan era). Dennis is curious to find out the source of the strange happenings in his house, but it never occurs to him that the disturbances might have something to do with Toby, Kristi's allegedly imaginary friend.
Sequels are all about upping the ante, and directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (of the annoying faux documentary Catfish), working from a script by Christopher Landon, achieve that effect. The first movie featured a couple, while the next sequel found an entire family being tormented, with a stepfather and his daughter caught up in the Katie-Kristi-demon drama. Now we have a couple plus the two young girls (played aptly by Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown), one of whom is extra spooky.
The real leg up in Part III isn't the addition of new characters or even more elaborate effects, although the stakes have been slightly raised in both regards. No, the breakout star and key innovation of the third Paranormal Activity is a rig Dennis puts together in which a video camera is mounted on the base of an oscillating fan. It's a brilliant little move that generates incredible suspense, adding a little motion to the static-camera setup without violating the principle. Joost and Schulman use it to maximum effect, taunting viewers with a glimpse of something awful before slowly panning back to the other side of the room, then, agonizingly, back toward the terror.
The only thing preventing the second sequel from being a total if fairly satisfying retread of the first two is the final act, which is a bit of a mixed bag. The last sequence is wonderfully creepy, although the film's eagerness to explain exactly how the demon came to focus on Kristi and Katie drains some of the spooky mystery, and incorporates a pretty bland new villain.
Don't bother wasting time wondering if there will be a Paranormal Activity IV-- with a microscopic budget and a $50-plus-million opening weekend for Part III, a fourth installment is a shoe-in. Here's hoping the filmmakers at least attempt to revitalize the franchise by focusing on a new set of characters; the limits of pre-1980s video technology will keep them from delving further into the past, and the story seems played anyway. The concept and approach, while somewhat repetitive, is still vital. I'll take that over the Saw series' grim moralizing and heaps of gore any day. For a mainstream horror franchise, Paranormal Activity's tricks are fairly subtle, which is a real treat.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter @bmillercomedy.