Monday 24 October 2011


Building on the mythology of the Paranormal Activity franchise by taking us back to 1988 and the origins of the demon, the third installment is out now. Watch the trailer and read my review, next...

Beginning with a reintroduction to Katie and Kristi from the previous films, Paranormal Activity 3 then takes us back to 1988 via a collection of old VHS tapes that were recorded by the girl's stepfather Dennis. When young Kristi's connection to her invisible friend Toby leads to some strange occurrences in the house, Dennis sets up an array of home video cameras to try and capture what's really happening.

Having been burnt so many times before by the diminishing returns of numerous horror franchises, I don't think I was alone in having a real sense of worry as to how they could keep the Paranormal Activity franchise going into its third outing. The second film managed the tricky task of building upon the original story, but could they really manage to do it again?

Thankfully, yes. Not only does Paranormal Activity 3 remain faithful to the storyline that was established in the first two films, it manages to creatively expand the backstory and add a genuinely compelling mythology around the characters and the demon that haunts them. Aside from the scare factor, the reason why the second film was a success was that it worked so well within the framework of the existing story, intertwining the narrative to make it an essential part of the overall experience. Well, by going back to the childhood misadventures of Katie and Kristi, we now have a whole heap of new information to process, all caught on good old VHS.

This time around we have some new characters, namely the mother and stepfather of the junior versions of Katie and Kristi. Julie is exactly like her daughters, sceptical to her haunted surroundings but willing to tolerate her foolish beau's wish to play detective. It's perhaps rather convenient that Dennis (this film's stand-in for Micah) is a wedding videographer, but without that helpful career choice we wouldn't have a movie. Dennis does a lot to drive the story forward by reviewing as many of the tapes as possible, but really it's the late night goings-on of the two girls that keeps the action progressing. When the lights go down and the floorboards start to creak, the suspense becomes almost unbearable.

To direct this third outing, the producers chose to hire documentarians Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, the co-directors of last year's opinion dividing Catfish. I'll be honest, I wasn't quite sure what to think when I heard about their hiring. I'm a firm believer that the story behind Catfish's unforeseeable finale is 100% real, so thought them to be either a ridiculous or inspired choice of directors. Anyone who's seen Catfish will agree that these guys can certainly rack up an astounding amount of tension, but could they transfer those skills to a narrative feature? Coupled with the fact that this sequel/prequel is set in 1988, surely they've been hampered with what techniques they could use?

On the contrary, this film introduces a concept that's both ingenious and authentically lo-fi. Using his videographer equipment, Dennis straps a camera onto a modified desk fan, thereby allowing for a smooth 'to and fro' panning shot of the kitchen and living room. Instead of scanning the static frame with your eyes waiting for something to jump out at you, you're now going towards them. Simple, but as they say, effective. As for the demonic presence in the house, he's just as cruel as in his earlier appearances, not afraid to get caught on camera tormenting Katie and Kristi. There's certainly a lot more evidence filmed this time around which isn't easily explained away. A growing malevolent presence, Toby isn't afraid of joining in with a little game of Bloody Mary, this film's equivalent of the original's Ouija board scene.

The main problem with the Paranormal Activity franchise is that you can't jump in past the starting point. You shouldn't watch the second film without seeing the first one, and now you can't see the third film without seeing the first two. There's still plenty of scary moments that will have you jumping out of your seat (the mother plays a prank that almost turned my hair white), but if you want to have any chance of following the story, you really need to have seen its predecessors. Don't get me wrong, it succeeds where the Saw films failed, building a strong and interesting backstory without becoming overly convoluted, but, such is the curse of long running horror franchises, as the story continues to expand it will leave newcomers behind.

If you were looking for closure on the events of the first two films, they aren't wrapped up in any way. In fact, there's plenty of new questions that are left unanswered, none of which can be discussed without getting into spoiler territory. Some characters may not work too well (Dennis's friend is a bit annoying), but as long as you're willing to suspend your disbelief over what Dennis chooses to film, you'll be dragged into the story nonetheless. The time period also works extremely well, using a few choice 80's references to add a sense of both fear and nostalgia. Teddy Ruxpin, anyone?

Having ousted the Saw franchise from the Halloween throne it held for too long, the Paranormal Activity franchise is now officially the must see horror when October comes around. There's no doubt that we will be seeing a fourth outing next Halloween, and I can honestly say I've no idea where the story could be heading now. Personally, I'd quite like to see a bit more of the younger Katie and Kristi, as the fuzzy VHS works really well with the found footage genre.

Fans of the previous films should check this out immediately, as it's a successful, creepy and at times, terrifying horror. The ending may prove too ambiguous for some, but it's admirable that the franchise is sticking to its roots by being such a slow burner. Perhaps all will be revealed next year, but personally, I think this is one franchise that's going to be around for a while.



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