Paranormal Activity 3: The prequel to a prequel.

(2011, Dir. by Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman.)

In its third October, the Paranormal Activity series is certainly going strong. Since it’s interested in going into the past, it’s only fair that I remind you all how far back the PA movies and I go. The first movie, for lack of a better explanation, shook me to the core when I saw it in theaters, despite some concerns that arose when I actually stopped to think about it. When it hit home video I checked it out again, and was surprised to find that it still held much of the chill I had seen before. The first sequel, which served as an immediate prequel to the first film AND a follow up to its ending, hit just over a year later, and left me a little less pleased than the original. But revisits to that film have made me feel a little better about it, and left me excited to check out the third film in the series, which is another prequel.

After a brief opening with original star Katie Featherston and her on-screen sequel sister Kristy (played by Sprauge Grayden) that precedes the events of PA2, we’re taken back in time (thanks to a box of old VHS tapes) to the totally tubular 1980s, where childhood versions of Katie and Kristy first begin to experience the activity we’ve come to expect from these films. We’re joined by their mother and her live-in boyfriend, the latter of whom shoots wedding videos as a job and thus really likes using camcorders around the house. (These camcorders also appear to take HD Widescreen video of all the film’s events despite being in 6 hour EP mode, but I think we’re supposed to ignore that.)

The film that follows is certainly the most playful entry in this young series – which is sure to add a fourth film next year after this one broke box office records this weekend – thanks to a little more comedy and some unique tricks to keep things interesting. Christopher Nicholas Smith takes the skeptical lead role as the girls’ father figure, and his interactions with his friends and the girls add for a little bit humor in the otherwise tense film. Smith fits well alongside directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who helmed last year’s faux-documentary hit Catfish, who seem to have an knack for teasing the viewer like the first film’s helmer, Oren Peli did. Their film is less physically assaulting – particularly with a friendly sound design which doesn’t overuse LOUD NOISES to scare – than the first two PA films, but maintains the same unease that filled them.

One of the new tricks that adds to the film’s tension, as silly as it sounds, comes when Smith’s character figures out that he can rig a camera on the base of an oscillating fan to view two rooms at once. This slow panning shot of the family’s living room and kitchen is one of the film’s most lasting images, and really does a great job of taking control out of the viewer’s hands. For me, the first film was so effective because I didn’t know what to expect, and much of the second film lost its effectiveness by pushing the same vision as its predecessor. This simple trick to keep the camera mobile and build tension as the fan slowly turns from one room to the next had me back on the edge, because I wasn’t just looking at the same spot waiting for something to pop out. This little trick forced me out of my comfort zone, which was a strong achievement for Joost & Schulman’s film.

PA3 moves at a very brisk pace, and the script ties together most of – but certainly not all of – the major events from the first two films in unique ways. If there’s one thing we’ve learned through the two pre/sequels to the first film, it’s that creator/producer Oren Peli and the filmmakers he’s working with have some unique ideas for how to keep this franchise going. I wouldn’t dream of telling you where this film ends up – you’ll probably guess it due to a few hints that tie in to revelations from PA2 – but the final act gave me some serious chills.

PA3 feels like a more polished film than the first two flicks, but I think I like that about it. I dig Joost & Schulman’s willingness to toy with the viewer, and their touch leaves PA3 feeling like a more fun production than the earlier films in the series. Since they’re able to add levity to the film without dropping the chills – especially in the final scenes – PA3 feels like a complete horror film. I don’t think it reaches the heights that the original did for me – I doubt I’ll ever be as vulnerable to this activity as I was two years ago – but it’s a fun experience that has me interested in seeing how the fourth film will continue to tie things together.

As I near an end, it’s worth noting that many scenes that were shown in advertisements for the film (about 60% of the trailer linked below, for example) are completely missing from the film that ended up on the screen. I chalked this up to the tricky nature of the filmmakers – who are still claiming Catfish wasn’t fictional – and wasn’t bothered, but folks who paid attention to the film’s marketing will probably be as surprised by what’s not in the film as they are by what’s in the film.

Still, I don’t think that trickery takes anything away from PA3. If anything I think it – like that silly oscillating camera gag that works about 5 or 6 times – just adds to the charm of this chapter in the Paranormal story. And that charm has me sure that I’ll be ready to dig in to another chapter of that story if it hits screens next October.

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