Since the creators of The Blair Witch Project struck it rich in 1999, attempting to replicate their success by replicating their found-footage formula has become an increasingly normal activity among filmmakers. This week’s case in point is a three-quel jobbed out to codirectors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the big-screen pranksters behind the fake documentary Catfish.
I’m not sure which I find more difficult to comprehend: the fact that numerous reputable reviewers and media outlets insist to this day that Catfish was on the up and up, or the credit Joost and Schulman have widely received for revitalizing a franchise that had begun to slump. Don’t be fooled by its record-breaking box office: Any way you cut it, the third in this series isn’t any more unsettling, cleverly crafted or entertaining than its predecessors. Paranormal Activity 3 is simply more of the same.
By some means that screenwriter Christopher B. Landon (son of the late actor Michael) doesn’t even pretend to explain, the viewer is witness to the playing of a series of home videos shot in 1988. They are presented in the order in which they were filmed and follow a young Carlsbad, Calif., household consisting of a wedding photographer named Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith); his girlfriend, Julie (Lauren Bittner); her two preteen daughters, Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown); and an invisible, malevolent entity whom Kristi addresses as Toby.
If some of the names ring a bell, that’s because we met the grown-up versions of these girls in the previous films. Katie Featherston starred as Katie, one half of the couple who got unwanted company, in Paranormal Activity. Sprague Grayden played Kristi in the follow-up, a prequel to the first film, which had Toby dropping in on the adult sister and her family. This second prequel, set even earlier, reveals that the relationship between the evil presence and the two women goes way back. One might expect it to shed new light on the purpose of all the paranormal pop-ins, but no such luck. Even after the theater lights come up, the audience remains in the dark.
So, back to late-’80s Carlsbad: As is customary in the series, the first half of the movie establishes characters, teases the audience with things going bump in the night and fails to explain why an evidently haunted house’s residents would consider setting up video cameras a preferable alternative to hauling ass. In the second half, as is his way, Toby becomes increasingly less playful.
There are indeed jolts here for the patient, but none that are particularly inventive or can be said to break new ground. The introduction near the film’s end of a witch’s coven, of all things, feels ill advised and semidesperate. Like its predecessors, Paranormal Activity 3 ultimately raises more questions than it answers.
Who’s treating us to this homemade film festival? Who edited the miles of video? When they’re fast-forwarded to indicate the passage of time, who’s at the controls? For that matter, who’s loading the tapes into the VHS player in the first place?
I have a further question I haven’t seen raised anywhere else. Think about this story’s essential elements: You’ve got a suburban family whose home has been invaded by a supernatural force. That force expends much of its supernatural energy on rearranging furniture — particularly in the kitchen — and young kids are placed in harm’s way. Sound familiar? That’s because what we’ve got here is basically Poltergeist minus the weird old short woman. The only significant difference is that one relies on the found-footage gimmick, and one doesn’t. My question is, what’s gained?