By Steven Harrison Gibbs.
In October of 2009, Lionsgate’s protracted Saw franchise was nearing its end. With the sixth installment marking the lowest point of its steadily diminishing returns, it was all too apparent that horror fans were growing weary of Jigsaw and his elaborate, grotesquely violent traps. Meanwhile, Paramount Pictures had held a test screening on September 25th in select college towns for a low-budget independent film it acquired called Paranormal Activity. Then, through the website ‘Eventful,’ a viral campaign was launched in which moviegoers could ‘demand’ a screening in their city; whichever cities received the most votes would be next in line to have the film brought their way. By early October, with each subsequent expansion yielding several sold-out screenings and the ‘Eventful’ page bypassing a prerequisite 1 million votes, a wide theatrical release was set for October 16th; it expanded to nearly three times as many theaters the following week (when Saw VI was also opening), and subsequently raked in over $100 million during its theatrical run. Though Saw 3-D would manage to steal the box office spotlight from Paranormal Activity 2 during its last hurrah in October of 2010, opening the week after Paramount’s anticipated sequel, the stage had been set for a new horror franchise to take over the trend of an annual October release, and with Paranormal Activity 3 now upon us, it would appear that Paramount has stepped forward uncontested to fill the vacancy.
Helmed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, directors of the controversial Catfish, the latest in this series of ‘found footage’ horror films is a prequel that sheds light on the childhood of sisters Katie and Kristi – the focus of the first and second films, respectively. A brief opening provides a cameo for adult Katie (Katie Featherston) and Kristi (Sprague Grayden), with Katie asking if she can store of few boxes of miscellaneous junk in Kristi’s new house – among which is a collection left by their deceased grandmother of VHS tapes containing home video recordings from their childhood. Kristi expresses interest in watching the footage, but viewers of the second film will recall that her house was ransacked – an event that occurs before she has the opportunity to watch the tapes. As her husband, Daniel (Brian Boland), records the aftermath of the break-in, he notes that the only thing that appears to be missing is the box of VHS tapes. It reeks somewhat of a retconned plot point, but it is unobtrusive and, most importantly, it works. What follows for the remainder of the film is the content of the VHS recordings which takes place throughout September, 1988 when young Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) are living with their mother, Julie (Lauren Bitner), and her boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith).
As is required of the subgenre, an explanation is given early on that satisfies the all-important question of ‘Why are they filming this?’ Dennis, who works as a wedding videographer, begins hearing strange noises throughout the day coming from the girls’ bedroom. So, out of simple curiosity, he initially sets up a camera in their room. Not long thereafter, an earthquake strikes while he and Julie are in the midst of recording an awkward intimate encounter in their own room. Then, upon reviewing the footage, Dennis is awestruck by an inexplicable occurrence that transpires after he and Julie had already fled the room, and thus he sets up a camera in their bedroom. Finally, following a suggestion from his assistant, Randy (Dustin Ingram), that he cover more areas of the house, he rigs an oscillating fan with a camera so that it pans back and forth between the dining area and the kitchen.
Like its predecessors, Paranormal Activity 3 is ripe with subtle, slow-building tension that gradually escalates towards calamity. Initially, there are only minor oddities, such as Kristi waking up in the middle of the night, walking towards the camera in her room, and speaking to an unknown entity outside of the frame – an entity she claims to be her friend, Toby. Then there are the occasional bumps in the night, such as the sound of footsteps or lights switching on and off by themselves. Suspecting an unnatural presence, Dennis and Randy begin researching various books on the occult and demonology, trying to pinpoint what exactly it is that they are dealing with and seemingly never suspecting that their exploits may be fraught with danger. All the while Dennis keeps his recordings to himself and Randy, and when he finally tries to confront Julie after discovering an occult symbol in a book that resembles one drawn in the girls’ closet, she dismisses his concerns as little more than lunacy.
If the aforementioned details are causing thoughts of similarities from the prior films to surge forth, it is a perfectly natural reaction, as the basic formula has not been tampered with in any significant way. Once again, a buildup in psionic energy is marked by a familiar rumbling that steadily increases in volume, heralding the terror to come, before it crescendos into cataclysm. However, rather than being a weakness, I would argue that this underlying familiarity serves as a strong point for the film, allowing the filmmakers to better toy with viewer expectations where it counts the most: the scares. With most any horror sequel, you instinctively know something is coming, but exactly what, when and where it will come are constantly tampered with in Paranormal Activity 3. With the filmmakers perhaps realizing that this was essential to the experience, most of the trailers you may have seen for the film (including the one currently on the official website) feature a plethora of footage that is either presented differently in the film or did not make the cut at all (but will perhaps accompany the home video release in some form, be it an alternate cut or deleted scenes reel). Furthermore, most of the more obvious, ‘gotcha’ moments in the film turn out to be comedic in nature, perhaps instilling a sense of relief in the viewer to the point that the genuine jolts are immensely effective.
Finally, there are a couple other relatively minor aspects that have both negative and positive qualities. Occasionally, the editing can be somewhat blotchy with cuts occurring in the middle of a conversation or even a word of dialogue. While this can be disconcerting to some extent, as it tends to occur in scenes where you wish the camera might linger just a bit longer to capture the entire exchange, it does lend a measure of authenticity to the imperfect nature of an amateur, home video recording. More distressing, however, is the development of the series’ overarching storyline. More questions are raised than answered, and what relevant information is divulged is done so rather subtly. Two of the most important scenes in the film strike me as likely to go almost unnoticed if the viewer is not paying careful attention and does not enter the theater with the details of the second installment fresh in his/her mind. One of them involves a brief conversation between Julie and her mother concerning whether or not she might consider having another child, and the other is when Dennis tries to talk to Julie about what his research has yielded – an exchange made all the more difficult to take into full consideration while cross-cutting between it and an occurrence taking place in the girls’ bedroom.
Though even the most attentive of fans are likely to leave the theater with many new questions (as well as some still lingering), there will probably be a fourth installment to (hopefully) rectify the dilemma. The ‘found footage’ subgenre may lose favor with audiences over time – as most trends within the horror genre tend to do – but it is here to stay for now, and as long as it is profitable there will be more films constructed in its vein. There have been a few duds already, and more are destined to come, but for what may well be the flagship franchise of this niche, Paranormal Activity is currently standing on a pair of sturdy, adolescent legs in the aftermath of its latest installment. I look to the future of the series with high hopes and great expectations, as thus far it has made a substantial contribution towards filling the lungs of the horror genre with a vivacious breath of fresh air that it has so desperately needed.
Author’s note: Paranormal Activity 3 earned an estimated $54 million domestically in its opening weekend, besting its predecessor in the spot of top opening ever for a horror film. It also set the new record for highest fall opening (September and October), which was previously held by Jackass 3-D ($50 million).
Steven Harrison Gibbs is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Directors Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Screenplay Christopher B. Landon
Producers Jason Blum, Akiva Goldsman, Oren Peli, Steven Schneider
Director of Photography Magdalena Gorka Bonacorso
Editor Gregory Plotkin
[Official site] http://www.paranormalmovie.com/map/tickets.php
[Box office report] http://boxofficemojo.com/news/?id=3295&p=.htm
[A few articles about the Paranormal Activity marketing campaign]