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Paranormal Activity 3

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


The Thing

The Thing is a franchise that continually defies expectations. The 1951 original, The Thing from Another World, escaped the usual silliness of man-from-space pictures of the time period with strong central characters and a couple of impressive horror set pieces. In 1982, John Carpenter released his take on the story, simply titled The Thing, that managed to be one of only a select few remakes in movie history that improved on the original in almost every way. What it may have lacked in characterization, it made up for with unrelenting terror. It was a masterful display of suspense and it still holds up today. Then in 2002, Carpenter’s film got a terrific video game sequel that surprised gamers everywhere by breaking the trend of poor licensed video games. Now in 2011, we get a prequel to Carpenter’s film, also titled The Thing, that any person would rightfully expect to be lousy, but it’s not. It’s not as good as its predecessor, but it works and does so in a different way, separating itself from Carpenter’s version while still retaining its style. This is a franchise that can do no wrong.

The film takes place days before the events of 1982’s The Thing at a nearby Norwegian camp in Antarctica where a team of scientists have just found an alien spacecraft and a specimen frozen in the ice. To help unearth and examine it, they enlist the help of American paleontologist, Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who soon realizes that the cells of the creature aren’t dying and are able to fuse themselves with the cells of other living creatures, replicating them perfectly. After it escapes, it’s a game of wits as nobody in the compound can trust anybody else. Any of them could be the thing.

The idea of not knowing who is a person and who is a thing was the driving the force behind Carpenter’s movie and the same is true here, though to a lesser degree. Although technically a prequel, it feels like a remake of the remake, following in its footsteps to a tee, including the lock-up of suspicious characters in a cabin outside and a variation on the blood test scene to check who is a monster and who isn’t, but it’s done well, building a good amount of tension and excellently playing off the fears of paranoia and claustrophobia. These early moments are undoubtedly its high points.

Eventually, however, it succumbs to monster movie madness and becomes nothing more than a gross-out creature feature. It becomes more jumpy and more effects oriented and thus, less effective. The tension is replaced by loud, overblown spectacle and the characters spend less time worrying about who is a thing and more time running from them, but it never gets boring. Because the movie has spent its early moments focusing on the characters, the sense of peril remains. You’ve come to care about them and even though the mystery is gone and the suspense is fading, its outcome remains as emotionally important as ever, despite the fact that, thanks to its prequel status, it had already been decided.

Where The Thing falters the most is in its climactic moments where it gets a bit too Hollywood and shows us too much. To go further would be critically irresponsible, but it ends up raising more questions than it answers, which is baffling given that it won’t ever have the chance to answer them (short of shooting a sequel separate from the Carpenter movie). Still, as far as these things go, this is pretty good. Creature features are generally silly, redundant and ineffective. The Thing proves not all creature features are created equal.

The Thing receives 4/5