'Paranormal 3': More of the Same
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
One lesson Paramount learned that the people who tried to make a franchise out of "The Blair Witch Project" didn't is that when you've got a hot, high-concept, fake found-footage horror property on your hands, you're smart to keep the sequels coming. About 20 minutes after it became clear that the fixed-camera spook non-extravaganza "Paranormal Activity" was gonna be a monster ROI hit, the sequel was conceived; and it was released about 20 minutes after that. OK, exaggerating here, but you get the idea. In any event, almost a year to the day after "Activity 2," here's "Activity 3." These sequels go backward, since apparently it would defeat its own paranormal purpose for the cameras to venture out after Katie, the apparently demonically possessed, um, heroine of the first film who disappeared at the end of that picture. (Is that a spoiler?)
Having been handed the entirely uninspiring challenge of fattening up the "Paranormal" origin story (pop culture mythology in the making, or not), directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (the doofuses behind the 2010 is-it-or-isn't-it-a-sham-doc-about-an-Internet-sham, "Catfish") reach into their kit bag of plot elements from, and references to, a whole bunch of older horror movies that most of their target demographic likely hasn't seen. A bit of "Rosemary's Baby" here, "The Shining" there, "Poltergeist" there, not to mention some Japanese stuff, and, of course, "Blair Witch" itself, particularly at the end.
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Beginning in 2005 or so and flashing back to 1988 via a box of significant VHS tapes, the film sort of squanders the good will its knowingness may generate with some older viewers by belaboring the rationales for the fact that all this activity is being taped in the first place. The wedding-videographer (see what I mean?) stepdad of two winsome little girls sets up his own primitive version of a domestic video security device, simultaneously taping overnight in the girls' bedroom, the other bedroom he shares with the girls' mom, and the kitchen/living room. This last camera he's mounted on the base of an electric fan so that it goes back and forth slowly while it's recording. Bet you can just imagine the fun Joost and Schulman have with that little device! (Which actually gets old pretty quick. It didn't take this viewer long to remember Andrew Sarris' phrase from an entirely different context, "the wasteful pan.") Oh, and Mr. Wedding Videographer also tapes himself looking at the tapes, which I guess is kinda like "Gimme Shelter" or something.
Anyway, this sets us up for the predictable series of shock scares, which subsist of things getting really quiet for a while and then something going bump really loud, and for the first hour or so it's mostly just people goofing on Mr. Wedding Videographer. But the little girls are enthralled by an "imaginary" friend named Toby (a name that had this fan of older horror movies hoping that maybe Terence Stamp would show up), and of course it turns out he is not nearly as imaginary as anyone had, um, imagined. So the shocks get louder and larger and more jarring. This really is kind of the cheapest form of horror: It's like sitting next to someone who jabs you and says "boo" at erratic intervals while you're trying to read, or maybe drive. Still, the directors are pretty clever about it. Mr. Wedding Videographer's multi-camera setup gives the directors all manner of cheats to work with -- intercutting! What a concept! -- and when they're not cheating, the production design has given them all manner of ways to manipulate what's going on in a frame and what the viewer's drawn to (full-length closet mirrors prove particularly useful in this respect).
Still, cheap it may be, but it's not particularly graphic, so it's got that going for it. And in any case, scares are scares, even if they are cheap. It may be that the best way to see this picture is at a latish show in a house packed with a bunch of zonked or slightly tweaked urban teens, which was how this reviewer experienced it. And while, yes, I dearly wish these kids would take their hippety-hop music and get off my lawn, I could appreciate how this group of fans really got off on getting scared together. Yes, it was a vulgar communal experience, but still a genuine one. For some people, that's what a night at the movies is all about.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.