For the first time in eight years, we’re approaching Halloween without a new Saw movie. Like the franchise or hate it, it was a Halloween staple, but pumping out a new movie every single year was destined to fail eventually. Fans grew tired of the premise and dwindling ticket sales eventually killed it. A large part of that was due to 2009’s Paranormal Activity, a clever, if not entirely effective, horror movie that relied on a slow build and eerie frights rather than fast action and gory kills. Last year’s sequel took the foundation of that film and built upon it, upping the ante with multiple cameras, an all-seeing dog and a baby in peril. If that film was an evolution of the premise, Paranormal Activity 3 is a de-evolution. In terms of legitimate scares and narrative cohesion, this is a major step back.
The movie begins with a familiar scene. Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and her family have just returned home to find their house ransacked. Completely disregarding the fact that the sequel clearly stated that nothing was missing except for a necklace her sister, Katie (Katie Featherston), made her, it appears now that a box of old VHS tapes from the basement were stolen instead (just one of many ways this movie fails to connect to its predecessors). This sets off the rest of the film as we watch the footage from those tapes where young Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown), along with their parents, Julie (Lauren Bittner) and Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), find themselves haunted by a demon.
The first and second films, while mostly existing within themselves, did a good job of setting up a back story through dialogue. It took the time, even as small a time as it was, to establish a history, which gave the mysterious events that occurred some weight. In a sense, a prequel is the next logical step for this franchise because there’s plenty to explore and connect. Unfortunately, this movie ignores even the simplest things. The fire that burned all of their belongings that Katie spoke of in the first film never actually happens here, for instance. Any connection made by viewers will be one littered with assumptions. Katie also spoke of how, when they were children, the spirit would stand at the foot of their beds. One would think something as simple as that would surely be included for continuity’s sake, but one would be wrong. The spirit does a lot of things, but none of what was mentioned in the previous movies.
Then there’s the absurd ending (which is far too reminiscent of plenty of other films, including last year’s The Last Exorcism) that tries to provide answers when none are needed and fails to make sense of what’s happening in regards to the continuing narrative that has now stretched over three movies. All would be forgiven if this could stand apart from its predecessors in terms of sheer scariness, but for every moment of genuine dread, there are three of redundancy. Loud bangs, slamming doors, swinging chandeliers, falling objects and shaking houses are old hat at this point. Although credit must be given to directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the guys behind Catfish (which I’m still not convinced is real), for managing to maintain suspense for minutes on end in certain sequences, too many moments are obvious and predictable. More than anything else, Paranormal Activity 3 needed some new tricks.
In the original films, all of the scares came organically. They came from the demon and his activity. In this one, multiple scares come from the human characters unnecessarily jumping out of closets and in front of the camera and from strange edits that make it appear like something is happening when nothing really is. They are forced in and come off as desperate attempts from a franchise that knows it’s losing the attention of an audience that is used to its tactics. By the end of Paranormal Activity 3’s technically short, but perceptively long runtime, it’s hard not to feel exhausted by what amounts to a creative mess, one that can’t even manage to connect the dots on a story with such undemanding simplicity.
Paranormal Activity 3 receives 1.5/5