As in years past, Rachael and I have celebrated Halloween with a month-long horror movie marathon. We finished off this October with the third installment of the Paranormal Activity series, now in theaters.
If I were to ask you to name the top 10 scariest movies you’ve ever seen, and if any of those titles started with the word Saw, you can stop reading now.
To be fair, the Paranormal Activity films aren’t for everyone. There tends to be two dominant opinions among those who have seen any of the now three offerings: (a) they’re maddeningly suspenseful creepers full of nail-biting tension, or (b) they’re boring and nothing happens. If you find yourself agreeing with the latter, this isn’t the movie for you.
Paranormal Activity 3 continues (and hopefully ends?) the tale of two sisters, Kristi and Katie, whose trials at the hands of a malevolent, unseen entity formed the basis of the previous two stories. The first movie (wide released in 2009) presented probably the most original piece of first-person horror narrative since The Blair Witch Project, while the second (2010) expanded on a back story in which both women mentioned being terrorized by a demon when they were children. This, then, is that story.
Set in 1988, the girls live with their mother, Julie, and her boyfriend, Dennis (a videographer, of course), in suburbia, where they share a room in the attic. One night, after Dennis sets up a video camera to film his and Julie’s weed-induced bedroom antics, they experience an earthquake that shakes the tripod to the floor. Upon reviewing the film (on VHS tapes), Dennis notices that debris shaken from the ceiling seems to land on something. Hoping to catch this something again on video, he sets up a number of cameras around the house, setting in motion the multiple-angle views we’ve come to expect from the series.
Before long, the familiar title cards (“Night #1,” etc.) begin appearing to let us know it’s time to be on guard and begin inspecting every square inch of the screen in anticipation. On one of the first nights, we hear the offscreen closet door in the girls’ room open. Kristi, the younger daughter, nonchalantly crawls out of bed and talks to someone out of our field of vision.
When asked about it, she says it’s “Toby,” who the rest of the family assumes to be an imaginary friend, however as we all know from numerous horror films, children’s “imaginary friends” are never too innocent—Captain Howdy from The Exorcist or “The TV People” from Poltergeist, anyone?
In Paranormal Activity 2, the gimmick of multiple security cameras was added to intensify the suspense. When just one camera angle is shown (as in the original film), we wait for something to happen. When numerous camera angles are thrown into the mix, many of which show long stretches of nothing, it becomes unsettling. In this one, Dennis comes up with a solution to get a full view of the living room and kitchen—he attaches a camera to the base of a swiveling house fan. This is, of course, an ingenious move on the filmmakers’ part, allowing us to only see half of the room at a time, waiting for it to turn slowly back in the other direction so we can see what has or hasn’t changed. It’s an extremely unnerving effect and played out well.
I can’t say too much more, but there are a few drawbacks that need to be mentioned. First, because we know that the girls grow up to be in the other two films, we know their safety is never really at risk. Fortunately it doesn’t really dispel the feeling of impending dread, and I did find myself caring about the characters—something that doesn’t frequently happen in most horror films.
It’s worth noting, though, that I didn’t always find the characters’ actions believable. Despite the fact that everyone seems terrified, Julie always seems annoyed by Dennis’ need to film everything. Maybe she’s just in denial? Also, despite the weird goings-on, everything goes back to business as usual at night. I saw The Ring in the theater and slept in my living room with the lights on for a week—these characters experience supernatural frights but go back to sleeping in their own beds at night as if nothing happened. Maybe I’m just a little girl.
As with the first two films, most of the special effects appear to be done with conventional moviemaking techniques, although a couple here seem to be obvious CG. While CG can sometimes be even more convincing than miniatures and strings, it stretches credibility slightly when you’re watching something that looks animated on video that was supposedly shot on VHS tape over 20 years ago.
All that aside, however, Paranormal Activity 3 is an effectively made scarefest that draws you into the story and presents characters who are likable in situations that seem mostly plausible. I also give props to the film’s marketing team for creating trailers with scenes that appear nowhere in the movie. When we see a series of scary scenes in a trailer, they lose a little of their impact when we finally see them in the movie. When none of those scenes happen in the final cut, anything goes—it’s all new to us. Bravo, advertising peeps.
Yes, some of the scares tend to be more subtle, but this is what sets the Paranormal series apart from the standard jump-cut-loud-music boo! moments of most contemporary horror movies. We are asked to imagine we’re experiencing a real-life account of a family terrorized by an unseen evil. In real life, there isn’t any ominous music or alternate points-of-view that warn us something is about to happen.
I’ve always felt it’s what we don’t see that scares us the most. There’s nothing more scary to me than a closed door at the top of a dark stairway, and this movie has plenty of them. I’ve never personally experienced any real, terrifying supernatural events, and I hope I never do. But, if I did, I’m guessing it wouldn’t be some monster or deformation that jumps out at me accompanied by an audible crash of strings and percussion. Instead, it would probably be a dark shape at the end of the hallway that stands there silently, watching me as I slowly become aware it’s there.