I think the “found footage” template has finally reached its pitch. Now it may be incautiously laid to rest or, more likely, undergo innumerable permutations. Whatever the case, Paranormal Activity 3 will have something to say about it. Those who led the irrational backlash against the first film of the series now have all their work ahead of them. This, the third entry in the now-annual Halloween event, easily shirks the complaints so pompously lodged at its predecessor (or successor considering this is a prequel). Featuring two innocent little girls being suborned to murder (whom? I’ll leave that question open though it’s not hard to guess) by a demon in the clutches of their conniving grandmother, it surprises, continuously. Just as Paranormal Activity couldn’t avoid associations with hypnagogia and its attendant mythography, part three mythologizes the juvenile predilection for imaginary companions; or in the occult sense, pets whom one may summon to wreak their influence on authority figures, siblings, schoolmates, i.e. anyone who infringes upon the liberties of one’s imagination. I remember distinctly this sort of wish-thinking in my own youth, spurred largely by horror films and novels and superstitious games such as bloody mary, often psychological terrors inflicted by older kids on their younger peers.
Following a brief introduction to the tapes we’re about to watch (they go missing following the break-in at the beginning of Paranormal Activity 2, a contentious mystery never solved by the film), the film picks up in 1988, a time the first two films always promised to go, at the childhood home of sisters Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown). I won’t spoil the first two films, as it isn’t necessary. Just know that, with a history of supernatural torment and possession glimpsed in the present, the series now examines what unfolded in the dreaded year of 1988 to make it possible. Well, it never answers that question, but at least it hints at an answer. The girls’ mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) has been dating Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), a wedding videographer, and he lives with them. We first find them at Katie’s birthday party being taped by Dennis; filming a video entry from each family member, eventually he thanks little Katie on camera for allowing him to be a part of her life, and that he loves her.
Though we’re initially distracted by Dennis’ antics to the extent that he appears to serve a vicarious function much as Micah did in the original—emulating even the curiosity that annoys, though Micah’s actions forced a Narcissine or karmic reading of events—the real stars here are the little girls and before long they’ve asserted their dominance of the screen and perhaps sovereignty over the narrative. It’s a delight to see children directed this way. They don’t appear to have had a script to read from; it’s as if they were told to just act like sisters, or that they’re not being filmed. They argue, shove, vie for attention, cling to one another in anxious moments, act with mercy and guile and do basically everything you’d expect of children under the circumstances, or any circumstances. I honestly can’t think of another fantasy/horror that features such an effective use of children, or one that draws such affecting performances out of them. We see the tormenting spirit of Toby, the imaginary friend, through their eyes, which, I believe, is probably the only way one could see him, and toward the end we know exactly what little Kristi means when she reluctantly accepts its offer in pleading with the demon to release her sister: she’s agreed to a marriage contract.
Paranormal Activity 3 does exactly what you expect it to, until it doesn’t. It’s my impression that it will survive the smart marketing schtick of cramming the official trailers with cutting-room leftovers; its surprises don’t rest upon this trick alone1. The use of an oscillating fan base as a camera mount is extraordinarily clever for both the genre and especially the sub-genre (I think its safe at this point to call documentary horror a sub-genre) as it’s a technique that would make little sense outside of the illusory documentary form. Though for all practical purposes it can be said to mirror techniques found in other films, the rhythmic pans achieved with this device in a haunted-house setting are truly unique and set up several visual strawmen while drawing out the tension of what may lie behind the next oscillation. It’s used twice, yet surprises on both occasions. The other major scare is a setpiece contrived to mislead in the trailers of the film that ends up misleading us in the best way possible anyway. It’s notable that the scene features Katie alone with ‘the best friend’, a character barely sketched at that point whom we’ve only seen nurturing Dennis’ investigation or else good-naturedly jabbing him about committing his sexual congress with Julie to tape, in the midst of playing an old-fashioned game of ‘bloody mary’ in the upstairs bathroom. The scene concludes in probably the most banal, but realistic way possible given the rules of the game, yet it’s still shocking in its development and fury.
The ending once again surprises and has an immediacy to it that nevertheless may haunt you for days after; if you’ve seen Ti West’s minimalist ode to ’80s horror, The House of the Devil, you’ll have a point of comparison. It comes and goes suddenly even as it prepares us for something long and deliberate. Someone (presumably editor Gregory Plotkin) deserves a great deal of credit for the editing of sequences like this one, which assists in the feeling of watching events unfold with living presence as though we’re inseparable from the Lovecraftian otherness of those things which assault the protagonists; not that we’re holding the camera, but that we’re manipulating the substance of its gaze. This also contributes to the inescapable sense of Toby as a kind of guru for the girls, that his final ‘appearance’ is something simultaneously messianic and evil.
The fact that the ending takes place at the home of the grandmother and the filmmakers don’t bother to familiarize us with its boundaries enhances the sense of dislocation; we’ve spent enough time at Julie and Dennis’ home, and especially the girls’ bedroom, to gather our bearings, but here there’s no such luxury: it’s dark and dangerous and Dennis doesn’t even know where the light-switches are. Reports that the finished film was whittled down to the necessities are not hard to believe when one considers the false trailers, the reported absence of an entire character who was vital to the original screenplay and the fact that the grandmother has all of one minute of screen time (Helena Markos, anyone?). Joost and Schulman took a great deal of care with this film, fearlessly shaping it into a sleek instrument of terror, trusting their audience to piece some things together.
The subtlety of the special effects is astonishing when one considers how thoroughly the ever unseen demon is portraited—it is given a definite presence in the proceedings, and the evidence of its ubiquity casts an increasing air of discomfort over the film. Though never seen directly in the prior films either, it’s in this film that its horror truly takes shape; its even given a name. Perhaps readers in the UK will recall Leslie Manning’s meta-horror for the BBC back in the early ’90s, Ghostwatch. Oren Peli, mastermind of the Paranormal Activities, must’ve absorbed its influence; Ghostwatch may be the earliest “document” horror. It featured two little girls who share an imaginary friend named Pipes whom we come to learn is behind the haunting. Aside from being clever, funny, original and, now, dated, Ghostwatch rather ingeniously incorporated second-sight evidence of its antagonist, his appearances spattered in such cant and variety that the viewer questions whether or not the filmstock itself has been invaded by the otherworldly, just as the television production is subsumed by its menace. Paranormal Activity 3 made me think the same and thus invites multiple viewings just to discover its possible secrets. It is to my mind one of the best horror films in aeons.
1 Many suspect that the various footage from the trailers actually play a role in the mythology of the film and are not mere leftovers. The burning of the sisters’ childhood house, for instance, is explicitly referenced in the previous films, shown in trailers, yet never appears in any of the films, at least not yet.