Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Anything But Normal

Sometimes when a film is really, truly scary, that can be enough. The first Paranormal Activity film came out back in 2009, and with it a resurgence in the popularity of the "found footage" genre of horror films. Long pantomimed from the early days of The Blair Witch Project, the "found footage" films have varied in quality and success, but until Paranormal Activity, none ever came close to the legacy that Blair Witch had built. Like that 1999 horror classic, Paranormal Activity terrified and excited audiences to the point that a sequel was not only demanded, but inevitable. Unlike Blair Witch, however, Paranormal Activity managed to pull a successful sequel out of its wizard's bag, and even if Paranormal Activity 2 wasn't as well received or as financially profitable as the original, it at least stood toe to toe with its predecessor, and many have said that it was better in some ways than the first. And so comes Paranormal Activity 3, the latest in the low-budget thrillers that have so far formed into an unstoppable box office juggernaut. Though I've never seen the first two entries in this franchise, I hoped that going in fresh would mean a unique perspective to the series; after all, how much do you have to know to be frightened out of your wits?

Creepy kids = scary movie
Mostly a prequel to the first two entries, Paranormal Activity 3 looks at childhood videos of franchise stars and sisters Katie (Katie Featherston) and Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and the origins of the malevolent spirits that haunt them. In the tapes their mother's live-in boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) sets up a number of video tape recorders when he discovers strange things happening in their new home, from odd shadows to disturbing noises where there ought to be none. He quickly gathers evidence of otherworldly happenings in the house, especially around young Kristi, whose imaginary friend Toby seems to be more than just any old figment. Despite the dismissals by their mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) that anything off is happening, the family must soon contend with spirits with a plan, and what happens when you piss them off.

 Proof that nobody is pretty at 3 AM
The film was directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, and if those names sound familiar, it's because you either remember 2010's little documentary that could Catfish, or have recently read my review of it. It's easy to see how this duo could climb into the driver's seat of the horror franchise, as there there were certainly a few suspense-laden scenes towards the end of their 2010 mini-hit. Unfortunately, their biggest influence might not have been the best: Catfish had some pacing issues early on that slowed the film down considerably, and Paranormal Activity 3 seems to suffer the same fate, as the film seems to meander throughout the first hour with a coherent story seemingly out of reach. Worse, the explanation we are given for the strange occurrences is barely believable and leaves us with more questions than answers.

Yes. Because you will successfully RUN from a GHOST
At least the "horror" part of the series come through nicely. Sparse early in the film's run, the scares gradually raise in intensity the further into the story we get, even if many simply startle rather than actually frighten. Excellent effects mean that we the audience are able to catch even slight irregularities without them being explicitly pointed out to us. Schulman and Joost do a great job with the camera work, especially in  the deft video editing that shockingly makes the impossible possible, with seemingly little CGI or advanced trickery. Each moment is perfectly captured in almost random fashion, as every moment feels natural and honest, the people reacting to the absurdity put against them in realistic manners befitting normal people. That's what makes the Paranormal Activity series so frightening. These aren't insipid college co-eds or pretty people with problems; the victims in this series are families like any by which we were raised, making us feel like the events depicted could happen to any of us, in our own homes.

Let the Haunting commence!
Of course, this level of scare tactics wouldn't be believable without a genuinely talented cast to tell it. Films like this generally don't have the most talented (or most expensive) casts available, and while it would be wrong to say that they "make due", they do indeed have to take what they can get in terms of ability. That's why it's nice to see some undiscovered talents in this new Paranormal Activity installment, from the mostly-behind-the-camera film producer Christopher Nicholas Smith to disbelieving mother/girlfriend Lauren Bittner. Creepy kids are a must, and the children du jour played by Chloe Csengery and  Jessica Taylor Brown fit the bill perfectly. Beown is especially impressive, and though her showing isn't that much stronger than many children her age, that she is that good at all an actress is definitely most important to this film's successful storytelling.

Ah, the 1980's... that explains the towel color scheme...
All these element combine to make Paranormal Activity 3 one of the scarier films to be released in 2011. Sure, it's no Insidious, but to be fair that would be a very high bar to reach in any year. Still, in a world where Apollo 18 gets financed, Paranormal Activity 3 is a competent, well-made and well-acted horror tale, one that gets better the further along you watch, and you won't ever know what's coming (even to the point where the scenes shown in the trailer are mostly cuts that didn't make the final release), even when you think you do. I wish I could recommend this title more highly, but suffice it to say that if you love anything about the horror genre, you'll probably find something to appreciate here. If not, well, Puss in Boots comes out Friday.

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