As the surprisingly durable Paranormal Activity found-footage horror
movie franchise unveils its fourth installment in theaters, it is worth
examining how the third movie in the series took its mythology in a new and
exciting direction. For a franchise with no master plan, its creator Oren Peli,
in collaboration with several screenwriters, has managed to avoid making each
sequel look like a slapped together affair but rather a well-thought-out arc
for the series’ two female protagonists, sisters Katie (Katie Featherston) and
Kristi (Sprague Grayden). It is also interesting to note that the Paranormal Activity films are decidedly
female-centric, with women surviving to the end while their male significant
others don’t fair so well.
The Paranormal Activity series focuses on two sisters – Katie and
Kristi – who lead their own respective lives but are both plagued by
supernatural disturbances that threaten not only them but that also their loved
ones as well. Paranormal Activity
(2007) featured Katie, while Paranormal
Activity 2 (2010) was about Kristi. Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) goes back to 1988 when they were children and suggests
that the supernatural was a part of their lives at an early age.
The movie begins before the
events depicted in Paranormal Activity 2.
Katie brings over a box of home videos to her sister Kristi’s house that she
inherited from their Grandma Lois (Hallie Foote). A year later, the tapes go
missing and the rest of the film depicts what was on some of them, taking us
back to 1988 when the two sisters were little kids. They lived with their
mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) and her boyfriend Dennis (Chris Smith) who is a wedding
videographer and in his spare time documents the usual family milestones – a
birthday party, the loss of a baby tooth and so on. We are lulled into a sense
of familiarity but knowing what kind of movie this is, we are always waiting
for spooky things to happen. Making Dennis a videographer was a nice way of explaining
all the cameras around the house and contributes to his obsession with documenting
the strange things that happen.
It starts off with small
things, like a door slowly opening by itself or hearing an odd noise at night –
nothing too sinister, except that during an earthquake, debris falls on
something transparent, making it partially visible for a few moments. Is it Kristi’s
supposed invisible friend Toby? This motivates Dennis to place a few cameras in
strategic spots throughout the house and the rest of the movie settles into a
now familiar groove of watching every spot in the frame for the earliest
indicator of something supernatural going on.
For the most part, Paranormal Activity 3 deviates little
from the previous films. We meet a seemingly normal family, one of its members
messes around with a home video camera, strange things begin to happen, and
said device is used to document any unusual occurrences. Rinse and repeat. It
is a prime example of a slow burn horror film – one that introduces the scares
gradually, punctuating stretches of the everyday with sudden jolts. There is a
particularly effective moment in which the babysitter is sitting at the kitchen
table alone one night. The camera pans
away and back several times until one time something in a bed sheet (a nice
reference to Michael Myers from Halloween)
is standing behind her only to suddenly disappear leaving the sheet to fall to
the ground just as the girl turns around. The movie even riffs on the Bloody
Mary urban legend with Katie and Randy (Dustin Ingram), Dennis’ friend,
terrorized by an unseen force in one of the more harrowing moments.
While the movie delivers a
few creepy jolts along the way, it doesn’t really deliver the goods until the
final act. Dennis, Julie and the two girls stay at Grandma Lois’ house having
finally had enough of the freaky things happening in their house. One assumes
they are safe now but they are in even more danger. One night, Dennis and Julie
are woken up by noises in the house. Initially, they surmise that it is just
Lois puttering about. Julies goes off to investigate and after a few minutes,
Dennis takes one of his cameras and goes looking for her. He checks on Kate and
Kristi to find that they are also missing. We search the house through Dennis’
point-of-view and share in his fear at what might be lurking around every
corner as he makes his way through the dimly-lit house. It turns out that Lois
belongs to a coven of witches and Dennis stumbles upon one of their ceremonies.
Julie and Dennis are killed in truly chilling fashion and the film ends with
Lois leading Katie and Kristi upstairs. This entire sequence is easily the most
intense one of the Paranormal Activity
series and opens up the next film to some truly fascinating possibilities if
the filmmakers are willing to take this particular ball and run with it.
Oren Peli wisely cast unknown
actors, which not only makes their portrayal of ordinary people believable, but
also keeps us on edge trying to figure out who will survive and who will die because
there are no movie stars to distract us. The use of unknown actors also makes
the characters more relatable because they could be you or me. Placing them in
a recognizable setting, like a suburban home, also adds to the familiarity
factor. For example, the horror depicted in the original Halloween (1978) was so unsettling because it happened in a setting
anyone could relate to and Paranormal
Activity 3 also capitalizes on this fear. In doing so, we are immediately
invested in what is happening to these characters. Much like the actors in The Blair Witch Project (1999), the cast
of Paranormal Activity 3 come across
as average people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
Oren Peli made Paranormal Activity for only $15,000 in
his condo with two friends and sold it to Paramount Pictures for $350,000. It
went on to gross a staggering $193 million worldwide. A sequel was soon put
into production and it went on to have the highest opening weekend ever for a
horror film. The studio, eager to keep such a lucrative franchise going,
quickly put Paranormal Activity 3
into production. While Peli wrote and directed the first film, he took the role
of producer for subsequent sequels. He also oversaw developing the franchise’s
mythology and created a set of rules that other directors had to follow,
including no traditional shooting schedule and no structured screenplay in an
attempt to maintain the aesthetic of the first Paranormal Activity.
After managing to avoid the
pitfalls of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch
2 (2000) with the very successful Paranormal
Activity 2, Peli talked to the studio about a possible follow-up. It took a
few months to develop an idea and then decide whether to make it into a movie
or not. He liked the idea of going back to the 1980s and focusing on Katie and
Kristi as young girls. He became deeply involved in the development process,
including the movie’s concept and story while being less involved in the actual
production because he was busy on other projects.
Peli enlisted directors Henry
Joost and Ariel Schulman, independent film darlings who caused quite a stir at
the 2010 Sundance Film Festival with their documentary Catfish, which raised questions about whether the content was real
or a ruse perpetrated by the filmmakers. They were fans of the horror genre and
drawn to the home video aesthetic. It made sense as Catfish originated from their own home videos. So, they were
flattered when Peli and the studio approached them with the offer to direct Paranormal Activity 3. Peli liked the
sense of pacing, suspense and realism as well as the look and feel of their
film. Joost and Schulman found themselves identifying with the character of
Dennis, the wedding videographer, having started in the same profession. They
had less than a year to complete the movie thanks to the studio’s insistence it
be ready for October. Joost found Peli’s unorthodox approach refreshing: “You
can just make up scenes [that] day, try the same scene 10 different ways, and
basically the best idea or the best scare wins.” They spent five to six months
of simultaneously writing, filming and editing.
Paranormal Activity 3 received mixed reviews from critics.
The Los Angeles Times’ Mark Olsen
wrote, “Throughout, though, there is a newfound wit and invention. The blocking
used to get characters (and scares) in and out of shots feels lively and fun,
making the jolts hit harder and the thrills giddier.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “The
PA experience is wonderfully instructive, communal fun in a movie house,
where if you’re not jolted by what’s on screen then you will be by the sudden
screams of your neighbors. But the films have to be even scarier when watched
on video, alone or with your beloved, late at night, in a house whose
floorboards never creaked, till right NOW.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-“ rating and Owen
Gleiberman wrote, “But when you consider how the grimy, mangle-fest Saw sequels have
ruled the Halloween season in recent years, it's refreshing to think that the
spook-show franchise that has now caught the popular imagination has replaced
depravity and sadism with a 21st-century, video-reality version of old-school
Ebert gave the film one star out of four and wrote, “Inexplicably, there are
people who still haven't had enough of these movies. The first was a nifty
novelty. Now the appeal has worn threadbare.” In his review for The New York Times, Andy Webster wrote,
“Less welcome are tired genre trappings like covens and pentagrams, with hints
that Toby’s family ties extend for generations.” USA Today gave it two-and-a-half stars out of four and Claudia Puig
wrote, “The best jolts come courtesy of a camera rigged up to a rotating fan.
But the freshness of the first film has faded somewhat, as has a degree of
terror. The filmmakers fall back on well-trodden and rather silly territory
involving a creepy witches' coven.”
The Paranormal Activity films end nihilistically, but only if you’re a
man. These movies differ from most horror films in that they all feature a
female protagonist or final girl, to use the parlance of the genre, that become
the monster by the end of each installment. While the victims are largely men,
suggesting a women’s revenge fantasy, Paranormal
Activity 3, kills off Julie, Katie and Kristi’s mother, thereby
complicating things. While the Paranormal
Activity movies deliver the requisite jolts that mainstream audiences enjoy
– to the tune of $576 million for the entire franchise to date –the third film takes
the mythology in a new and interesting direction. Let’s face it, these movies
are well-made scare machines that the studio loves because they cost very
little to make and are very profitable in return. While Paranormal Activity 3 certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it does
offer up a thrilling ride and is much better than most third installments of
popular horror franchises have the right to be. One would have thought that by
this point, the premise would have been driven into the ground but Peli and his
people found the right mix of the familiar and the unknown to keep things
NOTE: Here is a fascinating article that explains what happens in the first three films and attempts to fill in the blanks and offer some interesting theories.
Barone, Matt. “Paranormal Activity 3 Directors Ariel
Schulman and Henry Joost Talk Minimalist Scares and ‘80s Nostalgia.” Complex
Pop Culture. October 21, 2011.
Guerrasio, Jason. “Paranormal Activity Interview.” L.A.
Weekly. October 20, 2011.
“Paranormal Activity 3 Creator/Producer Oren Peli.” Bloody
Disgusting. October 20, 2011.
Turek, Ryan. “Paranormal Activity’s Oren Peli.” Shock
Till You Drop. October 18, 2011.