Paranormal Activity 3 (review)

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Paranormal Activity 3

Spooks, Lies and Videotape

When the only mildly creepy thing a horror film trailer has to offer doesn’t appear in the actual film, that’s bad. When the only mildly creepy thing a film’s second trailer has to offer also does not appear in the film, something else is going on. When the stuff that does actually appear in the supposedly scary movie cannot even approach even the minor, familiar, not-very-uncanny uncanniness of the deleted scenes, we have a problem.

Perhaps that woman who is suing the makers of Drive over its trailer is on to something.

For trailer fans, the bits I’m referring to are the “Bloody Mary” mirror game in Paranormal Activity 3’s first trailer, and the knocking game in the second trailer. Oh, and the guy getting supernaturally beat up at the dining room table. That’s not in the film either. In fact, pretty much anything in either of PA3’s trailers that looks like it might serve as connective tissue in something that looks and feels and sounds like an actual story has been excised. No one knows why. It’s a mystery.

But it’s not scary. At all.

I say all this as no great fan of the franchise, which started out slightly interesting and instantly devolved in the second film to boring retread. So it’s not like I’m disappointed to see a beloved story ruined. And I’m no great devotee of trailers as gospel, either: good material often ends up cut from the final version of a film. I know that.

But I do feel insulted by what we are offered here. PA1 just about skated by on the shaky legs of a tale that didn’t have quite enough to sustain it but did have some trifling novelty. PA3 doesn’t even have that. Rewinding to 1988, when Katie — who was an adult in the first film’s 2000s — was a child, we bear witness to what is for a very long stretch of PA3’s very brief running time the actions of a little girl that looks for all the world like normal childhood sleepwalking and imaginary-friend chatting. We know, because we bring the knowledge from previous films with us into the theater, that something else is going on, that Katie is haunted. This is not enough to sustain us. Where the almost nonexistent plot goes from there is nowhere worth going.

When I look at the trailers and see everything that was cut, and then look at what ended up in the final film, I see filmmakers who had some potentially cool ideas for a haunted-kid flick but had not the flimsiest of notions as to how to string them all together. Perhaps this is the fault of screenwriter Christopher B. Landon (Paranormal Activity 2, Disturbia). He certainly must be to blame for the fact that the allegedly found-footage quality of the film simply doesn’t work. Katie’s stepfather (Christopher Nicholas Smith) is a professional videographer and an early home-video nut and sets up cameras to catch evidence of the haunting, but he also preposterously leaves the cameras rolling for moments when no one who wasn’t attempting to make a narrative film would do so… and he was not attempting to make a narrative film. The underlying conceit, the only thing that made the first PA a bit intriguing, fails to work here.

I can’t bear to think about blaming directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, not after their wonderful is-it-real-or-not Facebook-romance documentary Catfish… although clearly it’s entirely their own doing that they chose to follow up that breath of fresh air with a threequel in someone else’s sandbox.

The only thing scarier here than thinking about what Hollywood does to inventive young filmmakers — and what inventive young filmmakers let Hollywood do to them — is how infuriatingly dull Paranormal Activity 3 is. As complete wastes of celluloid — or magnetic tape, in this case — go, it’s fairly audacious in its insistence that it’s worthy of being called a feature film at all.

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