Paranormal Activity 3 "continues" the story of sisters Katie and Kristi with a prequel that delivers on scares but never quite hits its potential in the way it builds onto the girls’ story by taking us back to their childhood years.
Paranormal Activity has embraced the simplicity of the found-footage format for all its worth, with the first film focusing on two adults, Katie and her boyfriend, Micah, who are living together and dealing with an increasingly angry poltergeist, which Micah attempts to catch on camera. The second film takes a couple of steps back and focuses on Katie’s sister, Kristi, and her family, who also had encounters with the invisible demon. The third installment resumes use of the found-footage format, but takes the story further back, bringing us to the late '80s, when the girls were little and living with their mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her boyfriend, Dennis (Chris Smith). Dennis is a wedding videographer, which, in addition to giving the movie an excuse to show us some gloriously poofy '80s wedding dresses, also explains how he can afford the video equipment he has stationed all over the house. In those days, video cameras didn’t come cheap, even for someone of upper-middle-class means, which I assume he is, given the size of his home.
The film begins by introducing a bunch of old VHS tapes delivered to Kristi by her sister Katie. They mysteriously disappear from Kristi’s house at some point before the happenings of Paranormal Activity 2. It’s a weak tie-in to the second film, but whatever. It’s there, and the tapes transport us back to the '80s, where the rest of the movie takes place. The story follows Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) as a child, back when she had an imaginary friend named Toby, who is presumably the same demon featured in the first two films. Curious about a few mysterious things that have happened, Dennis sets up some cameras around the house and the footage shows some of the creepier findings, all of which lead up to a twist ending that falls flat and essentially messes up the movie, without completely ruining it.
The directors get creative in this installment of the franchise, moving beyond stationary cameras set up throughout the house and the occasional first-person perspective with Dennis or his co-worker manning a handheld camera. There’s also a clever set-up involving a video camera mounted to the base of an oscillating fan, which allows for a few especially suspenseful scary moments as the camera slowly looks from the kitchen to the foyer and back again. With the lack of motion-detection capabilities to deliver bizarre scenes involving people standing while sound-asleep for hours at a time, PA3 compensates with the oscillating camera, and the effect is used well on more than one occasion.
The major issue I have with PA3 is its attempts to create a “bigger picture” story near the end of the film. They not only fail to make much sense or give us enough to, at the very least, speculate about what’s really going on, but also fail to connect properly with the previous two movies. One of the things I really liked about Paranormal Activity 2 was the way the story connected with the first film. Not only did the movie hold up on its own, it also tied in with the original, adding a bit more context to the first film and rewarding fans of the franchise. Overall, PA2 was weaker than the first film, but it held up. PA3, not so much.
The third movie ends in such a bizarre and seemingly random way that I can only assume directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman had ideas for how the story came together that never quite managed to hit the mark. Perhaps the confusing ending is part of the whole found-footage thing. Maybe there was no believable way to conclude the story through the video footage, so they just left it all up in the air, hoping viewers would draw their own conclusions. Or maybe they’re saving an explanation for the sequel. Regardless, on its own, the weak, confusing ending dampens the movie significantly and doesn’t allow the film to hold up on its own. I’m all for subtlety when it comes to twist endings, but if that’s what they were aiming for with this one, it seems like they overshot the landing.
I’m also going to admit that, throughout the entire movie, I was waiting for the burnt photo featured in the first film to be referenced, and it never was, which seemed like a major missed opportunity. That photo, which we learned in PA1 was believed to have been destroyed in a house fire, could have been the true link between the third movie and the original. I expected the photo and a fire to be the two things that brought this part of the story together with the original film, and we get neither.
Speaking of unmet expectations, there are numerous moments featured in the trailer which never made it into the theatrical cut of the film. This includes the scene that has Kristi jumping off the ledge in her room and the Kristi/Katie “Bloody Mary” scene. For those who want to see how those moments were worked into the movie, watch the Director’s Cut included on the Blu-Ray.
The Blu-Ray includes both the theatrical version of the movie as well as the unrated Director’s Cut and the “Lost Tapes” bonus feature. The DVD disc only offers the unrated version of the film and the digital copy. The set also comes with access to the streaming UltraViolet copy through Paramount’s website. As for bonus content, the “Lost Tapes” feature is the only extra you’ll find on the set beyond various ways to watch the movie. “Lost Tapes” includes a funny video of Dennis playing scare-pranks on Julie, as well as what appears to be a home-made TV ad for Dennis’ wedding-video business.
I’m assuming the lack of bonus content is an attempt to package the DVD set as actual found footage. Either that or they just decided not to bother with a behind-the-scenes featurette or a commentary. Both would have been nice additions, especially the commentary, which might have given us some insight into the directors’ thoughts on the ending and what they were aiming for.
Overall, fans of the franchise may not love PA3 more than the first two films, but the prequel does continue the story in its own way, and it also continues to milk the seemingly endless ways to scare viewers with shaky camera shots and gimmicky but effective surprises. Viewers who are willing to suspend their disbelief will be on the edge of, or jumping out of, their seats. The ending of the movie is a disappointment, but I won’t fault the entire film for that. Like any good movie, horror films are as much about the journey as they are the destination, and PA3 does take viewers on a scary ride.