Saturday, October 29, 2011

October 27th: Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

It's 1988; Julie Featherston (Lauren Bittner) is living a quiet, easygoing life in California with her daughters Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) and boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), who makes his living shooting wedding videos. Following Katie's eighth birthday, Kristi begins interacting with an imaginary friend named Toby; while Julie and Katie think nothing of it, Dennis begins to notice strange occurrences happening around the house shortly afterwards.
While Julie and Dennis try to film a sex tape one night, an earthquake occurs; the next morning, Dennis and his friend Randy (Dustin Ingram) go over the footage and see dust land on an invisible figure, forming what appears to be a face. Intrigued, Dennis decides to set up cameras throughout the house, in his and Julie's bedroom, in the girls' bedroom and in the living room/kitchen, to see if he can catch anymore unexplained paranormal activity.
Checking the girls' closet, Dennis discovers strange symbols scribbled on the walls. Dennis eventually discovers a connection between the symbol and a witches coven, leading him to believe the entity inside the house is demonic in nature. During the month of September, Dennis sees the paranormal activity gradually getting worse and when Kristi refuses to listen to Toby anymore, the demon's attacks towards the family become increasingly violent.
Let's go back to 2009 for a moment; while remakes were all the rage, the decade truly belonged to Saw. Taking the torture porn concept a step further, Saw created a brand new horror franchise that was dominating the box office around Halloween and with Saw VI right around the corner, it looked like Jigsaw would reign triumphant once again. Then there was Paranormal Activity. With a meager $15,000 budget, computer software programmer Oren Peli pulling quadruple-duty as director, writer, editor, and cinematographer and first-time actors Katie Featherston and Miach Sloat in the lead roles, Paranormal Activity didn't exactly scream box-office success.
Thanks to the persistence of horror fans and the efforts of people like producer Jason Blum, studio executive Adam Goodman and Steven Spielberg, Paranormal Activity went from barely known oddity to nationwide phenomena in the fall of 2009, unseating Saw from its throne, revitalizing the found footage genre and giving audience nightmares. A year later, Paranormal Activity 2 was released to similar success, defying understandable skepticism by expanding on the story in an inventive way.
Now in 2011, we have Paranormal Activity 3, which begs the question: Is there any life left in this series? Surprisingly yes. With Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost of Catfish fame in the directors seat and the previous film's co-writer Christopher B. Landon now handling the screenwriting duties on his own, Paranormal Activity 3 manages the unenviable task of keeping the trademark scares coming fast and furious, all the while creating genuinely real, likeable characters for the demon to torment.
When it comes to found footage films, especially those in the horror genre, the film lives and dies on its cast; these aren't supposed to be actors reading lines, but real people reacting to horrific situations and for this to work, it is vitally important for the cast to sell their characters and thus far, all three films in this series have accomplished just that. Lauren Bittner is a joy to watch, exuding a spunk and charisma reminiscent of JoBeth Williams in Poltergeist. Even better is Christopher Nicholas Smith, whose Dennis is enthusiastically loveable, even more so than Micah Sloat and Daniel Rey in the previous films. Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown successfully avoid the precocious child stereotype of horror films to deliver sweet performances, especially Brown as a young Kristi, the object of the demon's affections. Special mention goes to Dustin Ingram's Randy, Johanna Braddy's babysitter and cameo appearances by series star Katie Featherston and adult Kristi Sprague Grayden.
I also have to give huge kudos to Christopher B. Landon; let's face it, Paranormal Activity didn't need a sequel, let alone two. But by taking the prequel approach, Landon has found a way in both films to expand on and add to the mythology of the first film. In the case of this third film, Landon manages to retain the formula of the original while giving the series something new at the same time. Julie and Dennis' relationship is quite similar to the Katie/Micah dynamics, albeit with even looser morals and some pot-smoking thrown in; their chemistry is spot-on and colorful, never dry or boring. On the other hand, the presence of young Katie and Kristi gives the franchise a different edge; whereas Hunter in Paranormal Activity 2 was never in any real danger, these kids, especially Katie, are clearly taking the brunt of the demon's fury and it's terrifying to see them in danger.
Speaking of which, Schulman and Joost have a lot to live up to in terms of the scares. Paranormal Activity is generally accepted to be one of the scariest movies since The Exorcist and Paranormal Activity 2 had its share of freaky moments, punched up by more special effects-laden scares and an exorcism. I'm happy to report that Paranormal Activity continues this trend; the scares come fast and furious, far more so than its predecessors. I'm coming to think the 18 years in between the timeline of this film and the first two films mellowed the demon, because in 1988 Toby is way pissed off and pulling no punches. Rooms are trashed, doors are slammed, people are tossed around, and in the film's creepiest moment, the demon stands behind the babysitter with a sheet over it, only to disappear before the babysitter notices. It's downright chilling and worthy of this series.
Given the more limited technology of the '80s, I was curious to see the filmmakers utilize the found footage technique in the 1980s; fortunately, they've found some creative ways to do so. While the concept of Dennis film weddings for a career is awfully convenient, it's quick to forgive when we see the inventive ways Dennis sets up the cameras; the bedroom cameras and handheld cameras are standard of the series, but it's all about the living room/kitchen camera, which is attached to the base of an electric fan; for the first time, the camera can actually move around, giving a wider view and creating opportunities for effective scares; every time that camera turns one direction, you can't help but be frightened about what's going to be on the other side. Sure the film quality looks a little too polished for 1988, but once again I'm able to forgive it because the filmmakers are making me squirm in my seat ad nausea for the 81 minute running time.
That being said, there are two types of scary movies; movies that scare you in the moment and movies that stick with you long after the credits roll. Whereas the original film is certainly the latter, this third film is firmly the former. Far more than the previous films, Paranormal Activity 3 made me jolt out of my chair time after time; but by the next morning, I found that I slept like a baby. Even upon repeat viewings, the original film remains creepy and unsettling, as does the second film to a lesser extent. Other than the sheet in the kitchen, I doubt anything in this film will scare on repeat viewings. It's easy to make someone jump; make loud noises and throw something at the camera, you got a jump scare. It's much harder to genuinely get under someones skin, especially jaded horror fans like myself. The fact that Paranormal Activity continues to scare every time I see it is a testament to Oren Peli's talent; the fact that Paranormal Activity 3 didn't give me any sleepless nights is disappointing.
Then there's the climax, which raises questions that leave me with mixed feelings. Personally, I've always preferred ambiguity in my horror films and tend to resist answers to questions I don't need answered; I don't want to know why Michael Myers snapped and killed his sister. I don't care if Jack Torrance's psychotic breakdown is the result of demonic possession or mental instability. I don't want to know what demon possessed Regan MacNeil. These things are unnecessary questions and nine times out of ten, the answers provided leave me furious and wishing the filmmakers ignored the question. Up to this point, all we knew about the demon in the Paranormal Activity films is that a relative of Katie and Kristi's mother made a deal with it, leading it to pursue the first born male in the family. Going into Paranormal Activity 3, I knew the filmmakers were going to fill in more backstory; the question is whether they go too far and ruin the mystique or give me just enough information to leave me wanting a part four.
In the end, they've done both. Without getting into too much detail, the filmmakers form a connection between the demon and witches; I'm not particularly fond of this new revelation. Demons are badasses on their own. Do they really need to have witches help them do their bidding? It just takes away from the demon, now knowing that it worked with a coven of witches in the past. Regardless, I can't help but be intrigued by this new wrinkle; it doesn't contradict anything seen in the previous films and for someone who values ambiguity in horror films, I can't help but actually ask questions about the nature of this relationship and the role witches play in this whole affair. I'm genuinely excited to see this aspect handled in a fourth film; whoever thought I'd go from wanting no sequels to looking forward to a part four?
If I have to be technical, then I'll go ahead and admit that Paranormal Activity 3 is the victim of diminishing returns. The creepy, atmospheric chills from the previous films are mostly gone and a new twist on the mythology takes away from the overall power and aura of this demon. But let's be honest; we're used to franchises dipping in quality, especially by a part three. Do I really need to remind you people of Howling III? It's an impressive feat that three films in, these filmmakers have found a way to keep this story going without sacrificing quality storytelling, well-developed characters and intense, nail-biting scares. To pull a phrase from a far lesser franchise, if it's Halloween, it must be Paranormal Activity. 4 out of 5 Stars.

Next Up: October 28th: Howling V: The Rebirth (1989)

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