Apologies for my absence last week, but I’ve been down with a pretty debilitating flu (the symptoms of which will probably continue for some time, as I tend to take terrible care of myself when I’m sick). But I’m trying not to let it ruin the festivities of Halloween week, and I managed to drag myself to a screening of the latest “Paranormal Activity” entry. Despite the glowing reviews and word of mouth it’s been receiving, I found it to be quite underwhelming.
My advice, given the lack of quality first-run horror this Halloween: Stay in and watch a classic. Personally, I’ve got John Carpenter’s original “Halloween” on standby, along with “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” “Don’t Look Now,” “Sleepaway Camp” and the Peanuts and Garfield holiday specials — all time-tested classics that are guaranteed to get the job done. But whatever your plans are, please enjoy, and have a happy and safe Halloween.
I was a great admirer of 2009’s “Paranormal Activity,” a true no-budget indie that utilized slow-burn suspense and striking creativity to become one of the most financially successful movies ever made. My respect for low-budget horror films that achieve more than their big-budget counterparts knows no bounds, and Oren Peli’s original film is probably the best of its kind in the 12 years since “The Blair Witch Project” popularized the “found footage” horror genre.
Unfortunately, the prequels have not fared as well. Though successful at the box office, both films are pale imitations of the original that go through the motions of scaring the audience without ever really drawing them into the experience. Admittedly, both films remain true to Peli’s overall vision, which encourages attentive viewing with its “Where’s Waldo?” approach to terror (unless their eyes are constantly scanning the frame, viewers are likely to miss out on some of the most subtle and effective scares). In a genre that until recently was dominated by cheap torture porn, this M.O. is fresh and most welcome.
But good intentions can only take you so far, and “Paranormal Activity 3” once again stumbles with the follow-through. Under the direction of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman — who gave us the tremendously low-key creepfest “Catfish” — the film includes some interesting innovations (including a camcorder mounted to an oscillating fan, which effectively teases the audience by often keeping the relevant paranormal activity just out of frame), and one of the best heart-in-the-mouth false scares I’ve ever seen (trust me, you’ll know it when you see it). Yet with a screenplay this meandering and vague, minor innovations simply don’t amount to much.
This third installment opens just prior to the events of part two, with sisters Katie (the heroine from the first film) and Kristi (the focus of the first prequel) discovering a box of old family videos from when they were kids. The box is soon stolen by unseen forces, and the rest of the movie is comprised of highlights from those forgotten tapes. A traditional plot description is next to useless here, as we all know what’s in store: things going bump in the night, people being dragged out of their beds, and tech-obsessed adults waiting far too long to admit that a demonic presence has invaded their home.
Part of what made the first film so effective was the magnificent central performance by Katie Featherstone, an amateur actress who, like Heather Donahue in “The Blair Witch Project,” crafted an Oscar-worthy role out of thin air. “Paranormal Activity 3” lacks a powerhouse performance to fall back on (child actresses Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown, as young Katie and Kristi, are impressive but not enough to carry the film), so the viewer is left to cling to the usual blink-and-you’ll-miss-them scares and the scant backstory that is being slowly developed with each new prequel.
Problem is, the backstory that will supposedly explain all the strange goings-on has now become so muddled and self-contradictory that it verges on being completely meaningless. At this point I’m not sure the franchise can be saved, or if it’s even worth trying. Perhaps if Peli was brought on board as writer/director instead of producer, we might — might — see a return to what made this story so captivating in the first place. Until then, I think it’s time to put this put this tired series to bed.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.