The great sham of the haunted house film is the premise that something unknowable, something larger than the relatively normal tenants of its modestly upscale suburban houses (read: us) is lurking behind the drywall, in every creak of floorboard, in every blown fuse. Having ascended to the top of the food chain, few things beyond money and oppressive governments can smother us, so we fear the invisible, gods and monsters alike. The potential for truly great film-making lies within that premise, but the low-budget, low-on-horror Paranormal Activity 3 is not interested in the profundity of human fear. Its great sham is that this movie has already been made twice before, that the promise of filling in past events is enough to look past the law of diminishing returns, the number one killer of horror movie franchises.
Paranormal Activity 3 is a prequel, unnecessarily tracking back to 1988 and providing answers as to why the lives of Katie (Katie Featherston) and Kristi Ray (Sprague Grayden) are later compromised by paranormal activity. The answer is both rushed and fairly derivative—the film’s eventual interest in the occult is merely as a way to bring the film to a creepy conclusion. Until that point, however, Paranormal Activity 3 is more concerned with jump scares and the series’ well-established low-budget camcorder tricks. The big one here is that a camera is set on a fan’s oscillating platform. It pans away from a seemingly normal kitchen to the living room. It pans back, and the kitchen table and chairs have disappeared. That’s an effective shot, but most of the footage made me feel like I was being forced to watch some old home movie with the promise that something wonderful or shocking was going to happen. Paranormal Activity 3 revels in the waiting game, and its rewards for the patient are only moderately worthwhile
That’s because the protagonists as as glassy-eyed and likable as the Teddy Ruxpin doll that serves as one of the movie’s early false alarms. Katie and Kristi Ray live with their divorced mom Julie (Lauren Bitner) and her new boyfriend, Dennis (Chris Smith), who’s business is wedding videos (giving him a good enough reason to document everything on his camcorder). Dennis becomes convinced that something is wrong in the million-dollar house he’s been invited into, but Julie isn’t too sure. Kristi Ray has an imaginary friend named Toby who sounds fairly ominous, telling her not to reveal his secrets, lest he dole out some dire consequences. It’s all fairly rote, as the signs of haunting begin small, then escalate to the point that Julie looks like an absolute fool for refusing to believe Dennis’ theory. The plot, and the characters moving it along, are facilities of real people and advancement. Even the home feels like a cheap representation, a pornographer’s stand-in for suburbia.
Beyond the one really effective shot where the contents of Julie’s kitchen disappear, the film’s one creepy aspect is Kristi Ray, who at no point seems like a real child. Sprague Grayden isn’t precocious or precious; she constantly seems like the focus of an interrogation and, moreover, she seems to know it. The use of children in horror movies has always been fascinating to me—they’re never authentic, instead portraying a screenwriter or a director’s idea of the authentic, responding not to the emotion of the situation, but to very basic programming: Stare. Giggle. Scream. Horror movie children are automatons, looking and acting almost like you’d expect, but not quite. They’re flesh and blood, but firmly lost in the uncanny valley. I wonder if that’s intentional, half the time. If it is, the trick is too easy: That child’s the devil, break out the pitchforks. If it isn’t, the horror movie child is still indicative of lazy screenwriting: The child-in-peril will always draw our sympathy, fingershutter your eyes and hope nothing happens.
I get the feeling that Paranormal Activity 3 wants us to have both reactions, at turns feeling sorry for Kristi Ray, her sister and their family while operating under the belief that she’s in cahoots with Toby, whose designs are anything but obvious. It’s a clever ruse, one that’s meant to grab the attention, to draw the eye closer to the screen. Hopefully, we’ll be so caught up in what isn’t happening that, when something does happen, it’ll shock. It’s a good sham, but we’ve seen it before. Worse, we’re expected to jump knowing that the little girls will live to be haunted another day.
Paranormal Activity 3. Directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. With Katie Featherston (Katie), Sprague Grayden (Kristi Ray), Lauren Bitner (Julie), and Chris Smith (Dennis). Released October 21, 2011, by Paramount Pictures.