“I don’t know why you wanna play this– One of us is gonna be dead by the end of it. I guess it’s a one-time game. Okay, let’s do it.”
Together: “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary.”
If I can mix my carnival metaphors, this series of haunted houses is beginning to feel like a rollercoaster. The car ticked up the track with the creepy but deeply flawed Paranormal Activity, then went zooming skyward along with the stakes in the excellent Paranormal Activity 2. Now comes the third entry in this series, and although the quality is descending, I also feel like I was thrown for a loop-de-loop. I can see why this film makes the choices that it makes, and it does so in a consistent and thoughtful manner; but I disagree that they were right for this series. Just as I compared PA1 and PA2 extensively in my last review in the series, I can’t help but compare PA3 to PA2 and find it worse in a way that is significant for the franchise. I think this third film represents a shift in the way the series thought about itself.
There are really two kinds of ways to approach a series of horror films. You can come up with a kind of static ideal, the imaginary concept of what would make the perfect version of this film, and then try to recreate that as well as you can consistently over and over again, hopefully improving as you go. That’s a strategy of refinement. Series that work on refinement include Scream, The Grudge, Final Destination, and The Conjuring. Most films in that kind of series will be roughly interchangeable in terms of content, they’ll try and tell the same story every time, and what makes them better or worse is how well they stylistically hit that goal–and how well they understand the series’ Platonic ideal.
The other approach to a horror movie franchise is that of refraction. In this kind of series, films are linked more closely by theme than form. Each new film is either responding to the previous one in a continuing dialogue, or it’s trying to find a different approach to the same story. They’ll change formats or time periods, they may follow different characters, or they may present a different kind of movie entirely, moving tonally from straight horror to black comedy, morbid drama, or gory action. Series that work with refraction include Hellraiser, Night of the Living Dead, Alien, and The Purge. Films in this kind of series may vary wildly in quality, but that can give them higher heights as well as lower lows. This type of series tends to attract more qualified directors overall, because it offers more of an opportunity for each filmmaker to put their personal stamp on their entry.
Now, I don’t think either type of series is better or worse than the other. It just depends on which you value more, peak quality or consistency. But you should know which approach is best suited to your series. PA2 made it seem like the Paranormal Activity franchise would embrace the strategy of refinement, as it tried to take everything the first film had accomplished and do it better. And it achieved that goal handily, because it understood the ideal it was reaching for very well. In contrast, Paranormal Activity 3 takes the series into more of a refraction approach. It changes a lot about the series to try and find a new angle on the material, from the time period to the characters to the nature of the film’s audience interaction, changes that I believe are detrimental to the film and potentially the series as well.
What’s this one about, anyway? The first two movies present a series of supernatural incidents involving Katie and her boyfriend Micah, along with vague hints that this paranormal entity has been plaguing Katie and her sister Kristi since childhood. Paranormal Activity 3 takes us back nearly two decades to show us those childhood events. The story concerns Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) as young girls (about eight and six years old, respectively), their mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner) and their father, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). Dennis is a wedding videographer and tech-head, continuing a PA tradition where the husbands shoot the movie and the wives complain that the movie exists. After catching an unexplained image while making a home sex tape, Dennis decides to capture any additional supernatural incidents on tape, and sets up three cameras in the house (the master bedroom, the girls’ room, and the kitchen). Spookiness ensues, starting with slamming doors and mysterious footsteps and progressing to more overt activity. Of special concern is that Kristi spends an increasing amount of time talking to Toby, her imaginary (or maybe not so imaginary) friend.
Before I get into the film’s visual strategies and some spoiler-filled plot implications, let me give Paranormal Activity 3 some credit: this is the first movie in the series that isn’t crazy sexist. The film dissolves the sexist occult paradigm upheld by the previous movies by making Dennis the believer and Julie the skeptic. It also portrays a healthier relationship, partly because Dennis isn’t douchey, like Micah, or as contentious as Daniel in PA2. In fact, the film specifically seems to restage the scene from the first movie where Micah tries to trick Katie into making a sex tape. Here, Dennis and Julie agree to make one together, an idea that comes while they’re smoking pot and hanging out together. There’s a warmth and openness between them that feels much more comfortable than the previous two relationships we’ve experienced in this series. Another great moment has Dennis talking to Kristi about Toby by participating in the girl’s stuffed animal tea party. Where earlier films had a more balanced or ensemble perspective, Dennis is definitely the main protagonist here, so I’m glad he’s a likeable person.
The tea party conversation, where Dennis delicately tries to determine if Toby has anything to do with the supernatural events that have been taking place, suggests an important theme in both the story and its visual expression.
Dennis: “So Kristi, what was the last thing Toby said to you?”
Kristi: “Oh, like…”
Secrets and hidden information suffuse the film, preventing Dennis from dealing properly with the situation. Just as we don’t know exactly what went on here in 1988, Dennis doesn’t know everything that his daughters are up to. Kristi roams the house at night, jumping off the staircase and letting Toby catch her. Later, Toby attacks Katie, pulling her into the little crawl space in the back corner of their room, until Kristi agrees to his (unknown to us) demands. The babysitter experiences a really creepy event–what looks like a little girl under a sheet approaches her from behind, but when she turns around, the sheet crumples to the ground, empty–but the teenager doesn’t tell Dennis what happened, preferring to get the hell out of there fast. Dennis catches that event by replaying the tape, but he doesn’t see everything–he’s working with VHS, and can’t spend every waking minute scrubbing through the previous day’s 18 hours of footage.
Even given Dennis’ job as a videographer, the equipment he’s dealing with is woefully inadequate compared to the six or so wide-angle security cameras in PA2. The image quality is a little reduced, the angles are narrower, and at one point Dennis cannibalizes a fan in order to create a camera that oscillates its view from the living room to the kitchen and back again to make up for not having a wider lens or a second camera. Watching that camera tick back and forth, sometimes catching activity only on the edge of the frame, I realized that this film is all about mirroring the hidden secrets of the story with a series of scares based on off-screen information. While we’re looking at the living room, we’re wondering what’s happening in the kitchen. In the girls’ room, the creepy crawl space where Toby seems to live is directly behind and to the left of the camera, out of sight. Noises and lights are always happening out of the room we’re watching, and several scenes actually take place in almost complete darkness. One of the movie’s most effective moments uses the space outside the frame to hide what’s happening. Julie steps out of the kitchen into the living room; when she goes back a moment later, everything that was in the kitchen is gone–furniture, food, utensils, everything–until it crashes back down at once from the top of the frame.
I can’t fully discuss this movie without going into the end of the film, so there are real spoilers ahead.
That particular scare in the kitchen is what makes Julie realize she has to leave the house. The family flees to Julie’s mother’s house, where Dennis awakens in the middle of the night to find Julie and the girls missing. Various clues suggest to us that Julie’s mother (Hallie Foote) is some kind of witch or occultist; that the events that occurred in Dennis’ home are related (Dennis finds the same occult symbol on his mother-in-law’s wall as he found on the ceiling of the girls’ crawl space); and that what Kristi agreed to do with Toby is become the devil’s bride. This section is more traditionally found footage, with Dennis roaming the house behind a camera, looking for the girls. (It’s one of several points near the end where all reasons for Dennis to continue making the movie have vanished.) Ultimately both Dennis and Julie are killed, and we’re left to assume Katie and Kristi participated in some kind of ritual and were probably raised by Julie’s mother… But none of this makes any Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense given how Katie and Kristi act in the other two films. Nor does Toby make sense as a coherent character–is he playful and childlike (as the sheet scare suggests) or a tall, aggressive demonic presence (as the film indicates elsewhere)? It’s unsettling to be in Dennis’ shoes, not knowing what’s happening or why; but it’s also frustrating to be still so much in the dark after a prequel that could have clarified much of the narrative of the series to this point.
What’s wrong with all of this? I think using off-screen space and inconclusive, partially hidden plotting is a perfectly fine tack to take–for some other horror movie. Paranormal Activity should really be about us in the audience taking an active role in what’s happening. This goes back to the first movie’s marketing scheme, which encouraged people to request that the film be distributed in their area, and to the series’ roots in internet creepypasta and viral videos. Paranormal Activity 2 intensified that sense that the audience is an active participant in the film by giving its viewers long, wide shots in which to search for supernatural activity. But PA3 returns us to the passive experience of other horror movies. We wait for the oscillating fan camera to move from one room to the next. We wait to see something enter the frame from off-screen. We wait for the lights to come on. We wait an inordinately long amount of time to find out what’s at stake–PA2‘s early Ouija board scene tells us very quickly that the entity’s target is baby Hunter, whereas it’s not clear here that Toby’s goals explicitly involve Kristi until over an hour into the film. And we wait to see if the movie will tell us what, exactly, is going on here. Visually and narratively, PA3 restricts our information, making for a movie that is more frustrating and less engaging than its predecessors. The series’ essential moment is watching something inexplicable happen in full view; this film ignores that paradigm, and in doing so, threatens to take the entire franchise in the wrong direction–one that refracts, rather than refines, what it means to be a Paranormal Activity movie. I hope that future entries manage to get the rollercoaster back on track.
Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because only one candidate this year is truly against child brides. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.