October Spooktacular repost: “Paranormal Activity 3”

October 19, 2012

Okay, I’m gonna try real hard NOT to spoil Paranormal Activity 3. I’ll have to give away some basic plot points, but none of the critical ones.

Wow! Paranormal Activity 3. Has it been three films already? Don’t answer that, it’s rhetorical. So, yeah, we’re on the third installment in a franchise that really hasn’t been half-bad. If you read my reviews of the first two films, then you know that I appreciate these films for what they are: essentially shock-delivery-systems. This one is no different in its intent, though it tweaks the formula a tad by setting the action in the distant world of 1988 and showing how Katie and Kristi’s relationship with the demon began. So, basically it’s a prequel to a prequel. Taken to its logical extreme, sooner or later we’re going to get an installment where velociraptors are menaced by an unseen entity that pulls their tails and steals their eggs. Man, I hope they make that movie.

So, yeah, we’re in 1988. Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) and Katie (Chloe Csenergy) are a couple of rambunctious little girls living with their mom, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nichols Smith) in their (somewhat-improbably) large house in California. Dennis is a wedding videographer, which gives us the reason for all the cameras. At first Dennis is just messing around with the cameras, but one night when a camera set up to tape he and Julie having sex captures something odd in the aftermath of an earthquake, he begins a video documentary of the family.

If you’ve seen the previous films, then you know the drill: we start with some strange bumps in the night, some off goings-on, and then gradually move up to less ambiguous, more tangible events. This time around, they seem to center on the girls—in particular, Kristi, who has an imaginary friend named Toby. Kristi, who’s about six, seems to have an unusually close and authentic relationship with Toby, talking to him, insisting he;s in the room in specific places, and even hinted at nuances in their friendship—i.e. when he gets irritated with her, when they share secrets he doesn’t want told.

Dennis sets up a couple cameras in the house—one in their bedroom, one in the kids’ bedroom, and, most ingeniously, one mounted on an oscillating fan that perpetually pans across the living room and kitchen in the depths of the night. Gradually, they come to record more and more confusing events. Kristi gets out of bed in the middle of the night to play with Toby. Objects inexplicably break or move. Soon, though, Kristi starts getting uncomfortable with Toby and doesn’t want to play anymore. That’s when the strangeness stops being a matter of unexplained noises, and start becoming tangible. Furniture is hurled around the room, people are mauled by invisible talons, and Toby makes it clear who the master of the household really is.

I’m going to stop describing the plot now, since I don’t want to spoil a film in current release (see? I can be nice), and just say, yeah, PA3 is just as effective in making the audience jump, scream, and laugh as its predecessors. These films have never been the most disturbing horror films ever made, but they are effective, and do a good job of utilizing the limitations of their premise. This one, directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost of Catfish fame (furthering my belief that that film was all hooey) is particularly well-done. The fan-cam footage is particularly fun, creating some nail-biting suspense as we see something on the far arc of the camera’s pan, then pull away for the seemingly-interminable journey to the other end. It gets a bit old after awhile, but stops short of becoming boring or repetitive.

If the movie has a flaw, it’s the bizarre ending, when the movie turns into a half-assed Wicker Man rip-off. I won’t go any further, except to say that it hooks into a heavy and disturbing pedophilia vibe that runs through the film. Of course, any movie that deals with the victimization of some little girls is going to hit the ick-button somewhere along the line, but PA3 has a couple scenes that take it right up to the line (the scene in which Kristi plays pretend-wedding to marry Toby is especially disturbing. Something tells me Toby has a compound in the Utah desert someplace). I’d like to think that this is film’s sly way of commenting on the paranoia surrounding Satanic cults and child-sacrifice that was prevalent in the ‘80s (and completely unfounded), but I’m pretty sure that’s giving Schulman and Joost too much credit.

The 1988 mise-en-scene is well-rendered with the house positively crammed full of ‘80s kitsch junk (we owned a couple of the same dinette sets in this movie). Still, any larger context is largely missing. Granted, it’d be a stretch to work in the Bush vs. Dukakis Presidential race (which would have been heating up in September of 1988 when this film takes place) or the economic meltdown that occurred a year earlier. Likewise, there are a couple anachronisms, like Dennis’s hipster beard or the constant filming that comprises the story. Yes, home video was alive and well, but it was mostly relegated to weddings and dance recitals. The obsessive documenting of daily life we see today didn’t exist then due to the unwieldy size of video cameras and, more importantly, the lack of any public outlet (since the Internet and webcams were a solid decade away). Who wants to film their day when no one would ever see it? But, okay, without it we wouldn’t have a movie so we accept it.

More intriguing is how much fun Julie and Dennis are compared to Katie and Micah. Not only is Julie a pot-smoking, MILF-alicious hottie (check out how she rocks those ‘80s high-waisted jeans, rowwwrrr!), but she’s perfectly down with making a sex tape. When Micah tentatively broached the topic in the first PA, Katie shut him down fast (and, thank God she did—no one wants to see that).

If PA3 disappoints, it’s in a small way. The first two films, intentionally or not, were interesting looks at the failings of modern masculinity. In the first film, Micah was about as douchey as you can be. He’s a day-trader (which is a job about as much as “Wikipedia Editor” is a job, and about as respectable as those kids in China who just play MMRPGs all day to acquire gold to sell to players in the West). His every response to the demonic presence in his house is reckless and wrong-headed, and in the end he gets killed for it. PA2 gave us a more mature, responsible male figure in Dan (Brian Boland), who’s a husband a father to a teenage girl from an earlier marriage. He makes a couple of hard-nosed decisions, but one of them is a bridge too far and results in the loss of everything. He’s more tragic than douchey. Comparatively, Dennis is a bit of a cipher. He’s a good boyfriend, and the kids like him, but there’s not much more to him than that. Maybe if a couple of the filmmakers had been alive in the ‘80s they’d have a better sense of that generation’s own masculine crisis.

But hey, that’s minor stuff. In the end, this is a creepy, effective Halloween treat. See it in a group, in a crowded showing. Oh, and then take a sleeping pill when you go to bed that night. You’ll probably need it.

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