I don’t think many people could have predicted that Paranormal Activity would suddenly become the marquee Halloween horror franchise after the Saw series finally died it’s inevitably slow death. Yet, something about Oren Peli’s DIY ghost story seemed to really capture the public’s imagination over the past few years. It’s probably due to the fact that audiences grew tired of the increasingly gruesome, convoluted, and stylish aesthetic of the Saw series and Paranormal Activity offered a bloodless and simplistic horror concept rooted entirely in suspense and jump scares as an alternative. The movie offered an equally easy to swallow approach to horror for the masses that was the exact opposite experience of Saw’s headline-grabbing torture porn and it works…well enough. The Paranormal Activity series might not be forging much new ground in the horror genre (it’s essentially a variation of the formula The Blair Witch Project established over a decade ago), but it does provide simple, relatable, and effective scares that almost anyone can enjoy just in time for Halloween. That’s the only important calendar slot for Hollywood horror productions, so as long as these movies keep making money, they’ll keep being released every October.
Paranormal Activity 3 is just different enough from its predecessors to be worthwhile. The film is an origin story of sorts, providing audiences with a glimpse of how the two targeted women from the first PA movies started being haunted by this pesky poltergeist as children. The film is presented as a compilation of old VHS tapes made by their father during childhood hauntings. Set in the VHS era of the 80s, the father works as a wedding videographer and has an abundance of video and editing equipment, so is able to set up cameras all over his house in an attempt to capture the increasingly odd and disturbing events going on in his house when the lights go down. By now you should know the formula of the franchise and whether or not it works for you. During the day, the family bickers about the possible ghost in their house and whether or not they should be filming it, while at night long static shots of the characters sleeping are routinely interrupted by loud noises and sudden movements. Simple stuff, but it works quite well and audiences who got a kick out of the previous series entries should be quite pleased by where the franchise has ended up for part three.
Part of what makes the Paranormal Activity series work now that it’s a Hollywood franchise rather than a zero budget effort funded on credit cards is the curious combination of low and hi-fi filmmaking. The home video aesthetic makes this look like a tiny movie, yet when the hautings heat up the filmmakers are able to sneak in some unexpected big set pieces (a moment where all of the furniture in a room levitates to the ceiling and crashes to the floor is particularly effective). Even in this third film after two major hits, the budget is still fairly low, but at least big enough to pull off effects that wouldn’t have been possible the first time and something about that feels unexpected given the series’ DIY origins. The films continue to tap into the universal fear that something is hiding in the shadows of our comfy suburban homes, only now the filmmakers can afford to do more than subtly move doors in the dark.
This new entry was directed by Catfish helmers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (an assignment that instantly calls into question the validity of that documentary) and they bring just enough personality to the film to make it feel unique to the series. Unlike the first movie that featured irritating characters who you wanted to see die, the family in Paranormal Activity feels warm, fleshed out, and funny. You’ll actually care about them before the spook show starts which makes it that much more unnerving when things go wrong. The co-directors’ gift with subtle character comedy was apparent in their wonderful, but possibly phony documentary and they use it effectively here while also developing some nice devices for the franchise (most memorably a camera placed on an oscillating fan allowing that uncontrollable movement to hide the scares during the appropriate moments). Ironically, their social media doc is probably more frightening than anything in Paranormal Activity 3, but at least the movie proves that Joost and Schulman can work well in fiction and should hopefully land them a few more directing gigs once this ends up being an inevitable Halloween hit.
So, in many ways Paranormal Activity 3 is the best film to come out of the franchise so far, but that’s somewhat slight praise because the previous movies were average at best. In the end, the type of jump scare horror that this series provides is very simple and old fashioned. The home video presentation might be new enough to feel fresh, but if you’ve watched several horror movies in your lifetime, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve seen the effects used in these movies many times before. Fortunately the team behind the series has at least found a nice collection of talent to keep the franchise floating. Watching these movies with a big audience is an entertaining experience in itself, with all the calculated jumps and screams getting the desired response from the crowd. It’s definitely a fun and safe horror movie to watch on Halloween, but hopefully a new horror franchise emerges soon. These movies are fun and it’s remarkable how well the sudden franchise is holding up in the third chapter. However, it’s time for a new concept to dominate the Halloween horror season that goes a little father than making loud noises in the dark because audiences are sure to tire of this formula soon. This movie works well enough and fills in enough gaps in the mythology that it might be a good idea to end the series now on a high note.
The well timed and effective jump scares sure to make audiences jump as well as some nice performances and subtle character work.
This stuff is getting very old and predictable, very quickly.