Realistically, Oren Peli‘s 2009 film Paranormal Activity should never had generated a sequel. There’s not much of a story to tell and explaining why people are haunted by ghosts is just as likely to ruin the mystique as expand on it. But 2010′s Paranormal Activity 2 was also a huge hit, and so a year later there’s a third film. And unlike the last film – which went back and forth in time- this time it’s entirely a prequel. The results are more effective, but it works better as a haunted house film than as a story.
- Directors: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
- Writers: Christopher B. Landon, Oren Peli (characters)
- Starring: Lauren Bittner, Christopher Nicholas Smith, Jessica Tyler Brown, Chloe Csengery
- Cinematography by: Magdalena Gorka Bonacorso
After brief cameos from the original film’s Katie (Katie Featherston) and her sister – and second film star – Kristi Ray (Sprague Garden), the movie shifts to 1988 where their stepfather Dennis (Smith) has moved in. He makes wedding videos, while his wife Julie (Bittner) is independently wealthy and has two young daughters: Katie (Csengery) and Kristi Ray (Brown). Kristi has been talking to an imaginary person named Toby, and after a night where Dennis records something ghostly during an earthquake, he begins to videotape everything. And then the ghosting gets worse.
- Jump Scares: Do you like them? These film have a pattern. They lure you in to a sense of quiet and then you see something, then either something jumps at the camera, or something moves fast, or a human is dragged around. But no matter how you steel yourself, the film is going to surprise you and make you jump.
- A Better Sequel: The last film spent a lot of time being boring. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a little bit of boring in a horror film because often the audience is waiting in anticipation of what’s coming next, and so sometimes that can make the wait for release more exciting. In the second film it slipped into tedium, where here the filmmakers know what they’re doing, so even though the film has to have lulls, it never becomes as tedious. They also use a moving camera, which – though the gag is always the same – manages to work pretty much every time.
- Haunted House: These films work on a very simple principle – everyone at some point in their life has heard a noise in the middle of the night, or been awake and not wanted to go into a dark corridor or down to a basement. This film is very successful at tapping into that fear, and it functions much like a haunted house. At this point in the franchise there’s no real dread left – especially in a prequel – but like a good haunted house, someone’s going to yell “boo!” loud enough to make you jump.
- The Conceit is absurd at this point: Without harping on the fact that the video is in widescreen and of a quality unimaginable in 1988, the film has people taping themselves while they’re watching the footage they’ve shot. When The Blair Witch Project modernized the “found footage” concept, the way that film was constructed was rock solid, and played on the audience’s ability to not see things. in recent years it’s been embraced by studios looking to make films cheaper (shot on video, can’t show everything), though the first Paranormal Activity at least felt believable. At this point the narrative conceit is as organic and truthful as a pizza guy showing up in a porno.
- Boo!: These films are now stripped down to stick figure characters who have something weird happen to them, and then things gets terrible for them by the end. Though this is better constructed than the second film, at this point, it’s the exact same things happening over and over again. Effectively at that, but it’s simply being startled.
- What it Explains: This offers a modest explanation of why there’s been a haunting, but it opens the door to more questions. And though it may be silly to ask what a ghost’s motivations are – at this point, you have to assume that the ghost or spirit involved likes playing for the camera. Perhaps the next film will explain that, but when the film suggests why there’s been these things happening, it’s mostly groan inducing.
When you push out a film like this a year, it’s interesting to compare it to the horror films of old. Is this any better or worse than Friday the 13th Part 3-D? These are the crappy horror films of their time, and perhaps they will be viewed with a fondness that previous generations felt for the Universal horror films of the 1930′s and 40′s, or – more recently – Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. But like many of those films the first in the series were usually good or had good ideas, but the further you continued the franchise the less menace the central threat has, and = for the most part – the sequels just try to copy what made the original work. This film sets out to make the audience sit on the edge of their seat, scream, jump, and perhaps talk back to the screen. On that level it is very successful. A film doesn’t need to have great characters or a great purpose or a great story to be effective.
Paranormal Activity 3 opens October 21.