Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Written by Christopher Landon. Starring Laurie Bittner, Chris Smith, Chloe Csengery, Jessica Brown and Hallie Foote. Running time: 85 minutes. Rated R.
A cheap funhouse ride of a movie, Paranormal Activity 3 is a silly, yet wildly entertaining amusement, as satisfying and regrettable as wolfing down an elephant ear before hopping on the Tilt-a-Whirl. If you insist on seeing it, go check it out in a theater with an enthusiastic, jittery audience of like-minded fright fans, ready to scream their lungs out at the slightest provocation. There are plenty of those scary moments here, and several false stars, in what amounts to one long game of peek-a-boo with a mostly invisible terror.
A prequel to the 2007 surprise smash, this installment is another "found footage" festival, in which a pair of grown sisters uncover a box of dusty videotapes from their traumatic, haunted childhood. Back in 1988, these cute-as-a-button tots were living in suburban California with their single mom Julie (Lauren Bittner) and her new boyfriend Dennis (Chris Smith). He's a wedding videographer, and when the making of their homemade sex tape is interrupted, he thinks he's caught a glimpse of something spooky. Dennis then rigs up the whole house with cameras, trying to bust a poltergeist, and we are treated to repetitive views of leather couches and tacky pastel furnishings. Other period trappings include a Spud Webb joke, landline phones, and a Teddy Ruxpin (and damn if that storytelling bear isn't still creepy, even if he's not the ghoul you have to worry about). Younger sister Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) has an imaginary friend named "Toby" who's apparently very real, and in no way friendly.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman were behind the "alleged" documentary Catfish, and their vérité skills here throw the reality of that earlier work into further doubt. They sure know how to squeeze every ounce of fright out of the threadbare premise, teasing the audience to the point of frenzy. There are long, tedious views of the same three surveillance shots, of the bedrooms and, here's the kicker, a camcorder mounted on an oscillating fan that pans agonizingly slowly between the kitchen and living room, as we wait for the scary payoff. The whole thing becomes "Where's Waldo" as we scrutinize tiny details; was that lamp on? Did the sheets just move? Where did the kitchen table go? Eventually the menace stops playing around, and the true malevolent, '70s horror-flick nature of the threat is revealed in a heart-stopping finale that makes us wonder why it bothered shuffling around the furniture for an hour.
The flick indulges in the deplorable but all-too-common horror trope of placing children in mortal danger, which is icky, no matter how good the child actors are. Also, the adult characters are unforgivably dumb, hanging around the house long after any sane folks would have headed for the Holiday Inn, a fact the packed audience I saw it with kept yelling at the screen.
Paranormal Activity 3 is gimmicky, but it is so effective because it plays on our human desire to be afraid, to question every unknown bump and creak in the dark. It's a campfire scary story, with the benefit of delicious $8 popcorn.
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