"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

DVD of the Week: Rosemary's Baby: Criterion Collection

In the 1970s, films about demonic possession and Satan were all the rage thanks to films like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). This trend was actually kick-started on a mainstream level in the late 1960s with Roman Polanski’s Hollywood debut, Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The Polish wunderkind had made a name for himself with Repulsion (1965) about a woman’s nightmarish descent into madness. Based on Ira Levin’s then-unpublished novel of the same name, Rosemary’s Baby would be another harrowing journey for a female protagonist but an external one instead of internal. The film was a big box office success and began a brilliant but brief run of films in Hollywood for Polanski.

Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes) Woodhouse are a young couple who have recently moved into the Bramford apartment building in New York City. Guy is an aspiring but frustrated actor while Rosemary is the bright and supportive wife. Right from the get-go something isn’t right about the place. It could be the building’s nefarious past, as recounted by one of her friends, or it could be the nice woman she met in the laundry room who falls to her death outside the building later that night. The woman was friends with the Castevets, Roman (Sidney Blackmer) and Minnie (Ruth Gordon), a kind (maybe too nice) and spirited elderly couple that take an instant shine to Rosemary and Guy.

Minnie soon insinuates herself in Rosemary’s life, taking advantage of the young woman’s abundance of spare time. Initially, Minnie appears to be only overtly neighborly and a bit of busy body, but she’s a little too nosey, a little too pushy. The brilliance of Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon’s performances is the gradual transition of their characters from kindly neighbors to something darker. Roman is a worldly traveler while Minnie is bursting with infectious energy. It is amusing how Rosemary and Guy dutifully humor them but the usually gloomy Guy quickly befriends the Castevets. Before she knows it, they are spending more time with them and he suddenly gets choice acting gigs.

The horror elements really kick in during a nightmarish sequence where a drugged Rosemary tries to make a baby with Guy. It is a disturbing scene because she is not fully in control and yet semi-aware of what is happening. The tone of the film changes after this sequence as poor Rosemary faces one frightening scenario after another. Once she gets wise to the Castevets’ true intentions, she tries all kinds of avenues of escape but they all get mysteriously closed off as it seems like her entire world has gone against her – even Guy.

There is a reason why Rosemary’s Baby was Mia Farrow’s breakout film – she delivers an incredible performance, transforming herself physically and emotionally over the course of the story. Rosemary goes from a vibrant-looking young woman to a sallow shadow of her former self. Farrow really throws herself into the role and delivers an incredible performance. With Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski created a horror film that really gets under your skin. It’s the kind of film that gradually creeps up on you so by the time Rosemary figures out what she’s up against and what is at stake; we are fully invested in her dilemma. It is a smartly-written, brilliantly acted effort that anticipated the kind of fascinating fusion of talents that would become known as New Hollywood – responsible for some of the best films in ‘70s American cinema.

Special Features:

Sadly, there are only a few extras on this new Criterion Collection edition but they are substantial and in every way a huge improvement over the prior Paramount version.

“Remembering Rosemary’s Baby” features interviews with legendary producer Robert Evans, actress Mia Farrow and director Roman Polanski who offer their respective takes on making the film. Evans took control of the project that B-movie mogul William Castle had optioned and pursued Polanski against the studio’s wishes. The director originally wanted Tuesday Weld to play Rosemary but Evans thought Farrow was perfect for it. However, she was hesitant to do it – in part because of the nudity required for the role and her then-husband Frank Sinatra who felt that she wasn’t right for the role. Fortunately, she decided to do it and the actress talks about what it was like working with Polanski in this thoroughly enjoyable retrospective documentary.

“Ira Levin and Leonard Lopate” is an excerpt from a WNYC radio program that aired in 1997. The author was promoting his sequel to Rosemary’s BabySon of Rosemary and talks about the original novel and his career in film, television and theater. He mentions his trepidation writing a sequel because the original was so famous and had been imitated so often.

Finally, there is a feature-length documentary entitled, Komeda, Komeda, about the life and career of Polish jazz musician and composer Krzysztof Komeda who had worked with Polanski several times, including Rosemary’s Baby. Friends, family and contemporaries paint a fascinating portrait of this artist.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Son of Danse Macabre

It’s the sequel no one thought would happen. Danse Macabre is the popular Stephen King book where the legendary writer examined the horror genre from1950-1980, taking a look at literature, movies, radio and television. It was a fantastic rumination of what works best and what doesn’t in the horror genre. However, King never wrote a follow-up to cover the next 30 years, leaving fans that loved his book wanting more. Well, someone has stepped up and taken on this ambitious task. One my favorite bloggers Bryce Wilson, he of the Things That Don’t Suck blog, decided that he would be the person to pen a sequel to King’s book, entitled Son of Danse Macabre, utilizing the structure of the original book while making a few changes here and there to really make it his own. He started it on a blog of its own and now has it available to purchase on Amazon.com for the Kindle. So, why should you pony up your hard earned $$$ for something you can read for free online? Well, he has revised and expanded the book, included three Appendices and nine essays. I’ve read ‘em all and they are excellent.

First of all, I’d admire Bryce for having the cojones to take on this daunting task and then actually completing it. As someone who is also writing their own book but has yet to finish it I know how hard it is to do it, so my hats off to anyone who has the dedication to see it through to the end. Here are a few highlights I’d like to mention.

Early on, Bryce defines what a horror film is – “a film whose main purpose is to inspire fear” – and what it isn’t – “a film can bring in all the Demons, Vampires, and assorted creatures of the night it wants. If the main purpose of them is to give someone something to aim a shotgun at, it’s not a horror film.” That certainly works for me. From there, he follows King’s lead by discussing three important authors of horror literature in the last 30 years, chief among them H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson and King himself. All admirable choices and Bryce certainly makes a solid case for the towering influence each one of them has had on the genre in the last three decades. What I like is that he’s not afraid be critical of each man’s work. For example, when discussing King and the differences between The Shining novel and Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation, he writes:

But King’s story is at its core one of a family tearing itself to bloody pieces and Kubrick’s is an abstract experiment. There is never for a single frame a feeling of bond between Nicholson and the other Torrances, so there is not an ounce of feeling when that bond breaks. An accurate adaptation of The Shining would need the kind of performance that Shelley Duval, and Danny Lloyd frankly aren’t capable of giving. And a performance that Jack Nicholson is capable of giving but for reasons known only to Kubrick’s ghost, didn’t. King and Kubrick simply don’t share the same concerns.

Ouch. The crap mini-series version doesn’t escape Bryce’s criticism either, which he deals with in this rather amusing passage:

The detractors of the novel love to point to Mick Garris’s infamously botched made for TV remake as “proof” of the novel’s inferiority. Look guys, the made for TV Shining isn’t bad because it followed the novel, it’s bad because Garris is one of the most staggeringly untalented filmmakers ever to scrape out a career for himself. I’m shocked he knows which end of the camera to point at things.

In this quote, Bryce succinctly savages Garris and his style of filmmaking in a way that had me nodding in agreement and green with envy that I hadn’t thought of it putting it that way.

I found it interesting to see where he deviates from King’s original template, tossing out the autobiographical chapter, which he actually covers at the beginning, and the chapter on radio – for obvious reasons. In its place, he tackles the horror genre in video games and horror comics – two of my favorite mediums so I was looking forward to what he had to say about them. When it comes to video games, I’m glad he singled out Alan Wake, definitely one of the better horror-themed games to come out in some time. To close out the chapter on video games, Bryce points out what a good one should do: “Dread instead of jump scares, a real sense of place instead of generic space holders, serious thought in its design instead of empty iconography, fear not of the maniac in the shadows but stemming from an entire environment and the self.”

In his chapter on comic books, he skips over the classic EC comics and takes a look at titles in the last 30 years, rightly pointing out key ones from the 1970s, like Marvels’ Tomb of Dracula and DC’s Swamp Thing. Naturally, he discusses Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and makes this bold statement: “No if you want to talk about great horror in Sandman you need look no further than the first volume and the chapter entitled “24 Hours” which is one of the most perfect horror stories of which I know in any medium.”

Moving on to television, he takes a look at Tales from the Crypt and one of my personal faves, Friday the 13th – The Series. No discussion of the horror genre on T.V. would be complete without mentioning Twin Peaks, which he rightly observes, “Unlike the other shows of the era Twin Peaks is ultimately a work of horror first and foremost. Its images of dark cathedral forests, bodies wrapped in plastic, and cryptic messages encoded in crimson and flame still have the power to unsettle.”

From there, Bryce moves on to the modern American horror film and sets his sights on A Nightmare on Elm Street, pointing out that it “works because it taps in a very direct way into a very potent area of unease.” His analysis of what makes it work is spot on:

On one hand it’s not hard to read it as a story of generational distrust. As the upper middle class suburban teens of Elm Street find that there are some serious skeletons hiding behind the “Just Say No” squeaky clean suburbs that their parents have delivered to them.

As he mentions, it is a point that isn’t talked about enough in relation to Wes Craven’s film and is why, among many reasons, it is vastly superior to any of its subsequent sequels. Although, I disagree with him when he calls Craven’s return to the franchise with New Nightmare, “profoundly miscalculated in practice.”

Bryce also champions Day of the Dead, the most under-appreciated of the George Romero zombie films:

Day Of The Dead is an abrasive film, slow paced, claustrophobic, filled with people who are difficult to like. And while its certainly feels allegorical, it doesn’t break down as neatly into metaphor as Dawn or Night. Yet it is these very elements that arguably make Day Of The Dead the ultimate expression of the Apocalypse through dysfunction that Romero has spent his entire career making movies about.

He really nails what makes this film work so well and sums it up perfectly when he says, “In it Romero does what he had been threatening to do for two films and takes us to the ultimate end of our world. And the most subversive thing about it is when he arrives there; he breathes a deep sigh that sounds very much like one of relief.”

However, I have to take Bryce to task with his assessment of the underrated horror film from the 1990s, Candyman, which he writes, “Unfortunately while all the elements are brought together for something great, the execution is ultimately lacking.” But fortunately, he gets it right with his assessment of Larry Fessenden’s vampire film, Habit: “Even if Fessenden’s version of the vampire wasn’t exactly original, his naturalistic 16mm blood sucker was certainly a bracing piece of counter programming when compared to the gauche, baroque aesthetic of Jordan’s and Coppala’s films.” But then he gets it wrong again, IMO, with Jacob’s Ladder, which he describes the experience of watching: “Yet the sensation I walk away with every time I watch the film is one of being profoundly annoyed.”

Bryce zeroes in on what makes Scream a film “that it starts with the promise of being a great horror film and ends up being a good horror movie instead” because “after such a promising beginning it is disappointing when Scream shifts into a much more familiar genre exercise.”

As he moves into the new Millennium era of horror films, Bryce does a good job defending the merits of the Hostel films, which I’ve never cared for and have no desire to see but I do give them a bit more credit after his excellent argument for why they should be taken seriously. He also takes dead aim at the glut of unimaginative remakes, pointing out that they are “united in their uniformly dull dark filtered look, young cast of blanks and an almost willful misunderstanding of their source material. They were on the whole about as bland, tasteless and dispiriting as a wad of chewed paper.” He wisely cites Rob Zombie’s take on Halloween as one of the few that work because “Love it or loath it, Rob Zombie’s take on Halloween is the only exception to that rule. It’s the only one of this disreputable lot to feature an actual authorial voice. The only one that feels like the product of a filmmaker and not a gaggle of risk adverse studio execs.”

So, there’s a taste of Bryce’s book. There are still a smattering of spelling and grammatical errors throughout but nothing that took away from my enjoyment of reading the book and something that can be easily fixed. I can’t recommend this book enough. It is written with passion and a real love for the horror genre but it is not a fanboy love letter either. He is willing to skewer sacred cows that deserve to be savaged and champion films and filmmakers that often exist on the margins or have been unfairly derided. I can’t think of a more appropriate gift to treat yourself or someone else for Halloween.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Hilarious House of Frightenstein

If you grew up in Southern Ontario, Canada in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there’s a good chance you probably grew up watching The HilariousHouse of Frightenstein, a children’s television program that aired Saturday mornings on Hamilton’s independent station CHCH. It was a funky fusion of horror genre parody and counterculture spoof with the occasional educational segment. It was the ideal gateway drug for young, impressionable minds to become acquainted with the horror genre and it prepared me for the likes of The Birds (1963) and Night of the Living Dead (1968).

Legendary actor Vincent Price bookended each 48-minute episode with an opening and closing poem. The former did a great job of setting the tone:

Another lovely day begins, for ghosts and ghouls with greenish skin. So close your eyes, and you will find that you've arrived in Frightenstein. Perhaps the Count will find a way to make his monster work today. For if he solves this monster-mania, he can return to Transylvania. So welcome where the sun won't shine, to the castle of Count Frightenstein!

While the poem itself is pretty goofy, it was the way Price read it and the look he gave into the camera that used to freak me out a little as a kid. He would return sporadically throughout the show introducing many of the segments with funny little poems.

Each episode would chronicle Count Frightenstein (Billy Van), the 13th son of Count Dracula. The story goes he was exiled to Castle Frightenstein in Frankenstone because he was unable to revive Bruce J. Monster, a Universal Monsters version of Frankenstein in every way except for name (for legal reasons I’m sure). The Count was aided by his trusty but basically useless assistant, the loveable Igor (Fishka Rais). It only takes one segment to see why these guys are never able to revive Brucie. Their shtick definitely goes on for way too long in many of the episodes but fortunately they would segue into something better. This story was only one of many segments that compromised a very cool sketch comedy show for kids.

A segment that always creeped me out as a kid was “The Librarian,” whose title card came up amidst sounds of a heartbeat and wolves howling. Played by Billy Van, he was a decrepit old man shuffling through a dusty old library somewhere deep in the castle. He would always try in vain to scare viewers by reading children’s stories, which he thought were horror stories. Some of them were fables with downbeat endings but at the end of every segment he admitted to failing in scaring anyone. This was one of the strongest segments of Frightenstein and one that paid tribute to the horror genre as much as it affectionately parodied it. It wasn’t so much the stories that were spooky but also the general appearance of the Librarian – an old man dressed in dusty clothes with disheveled long hair and a wrinkled face that showcased what a fine makeup job was done on Billy Van. But it was his gravelly voice that always did it for me.

Another memorable segment was “The Wolfman.” Again, played by Van, this segment imagines legendary disc jockey Wolfman Jack as an actual werewolf in the Universal Monster vein complete with “I Want to Take You Higher” by Sly and the Family Stone as his theme music (how cool is that?). He spun classic rock tracks from the late 1960s and early ‘70s, from recognizable hits like “Street Fightin' Man” by the Rolling Stones to obscure gems like “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin’” by Crazy Elephant. Once the song started, the Wolfman would pick up a guitar and rock out in front of a blue screen pulsating with abstract psychedelic imagery. He was soon joined by Igor and they would dance in silhouette. I obviously didn’t realize it at the time but it was the show’s subversive way of exposing young kids to a simulated drug trip – pretty radical for Saturday morning T.V.!

“Grizelda the Ghastly Gourmet” was an amusing cooking show hosted by a ditzy witch (Van) brewing up wacky culinary delights like Mastodon Muck a la Delight or Large Long Lucifer’s Lamb and Lizard Luncheon with ingredients like lama milk, Amazon pilgrim ants, Dizzy’s donut holes, and minced Martian animal meat. She tells really bizarre jokes with references that flew over my head as a kid but I appreciate them now as an adult. But back in the day, I would just laugh at her gonzo antics, like how she would bang her head on the pot above her cauldron in every episode or how she would break into song while shuffling through her “groovy pad.” She was delightfully vain despite her pretty hideous looks and not bashful about giving herself compliments and shout-outs to beauties of the day (like Barbra Streisand and Raquel Welch).

“The Professor” was the most educational segment of Frightenstein. Hosted by American physicist Julius Sumner Miller (a.k.a. Professor Wonderful on the Mickey Mouse Club), it saw him teaching basic scientific principles like thermal expansion that quite frankly bored me as a kid. I wanted to watch a show like Frightenstein to get away from weekly school lessons but I certainly appreciate this segment more now. One thing that is readily apparent is just how passionate he was about science and conveyed that to his audience. His wrinkled attire and wild grey hair resembled some of the science teachers I had in my youth but there was also a touch of the mad scientist in there as well. Each lesson adhered to the scientific method – posing of a question, ruminating on several answers and then performing the experiment to get to the truth of the matter. I think that the reason I didn’t like this segment as a kid was that I didn’t get a lot of the things he talked about but the passage of time has certainly changed my opinion of it.

Other memorable characters include the Maharishi (Van), a hippie burn-out cum East Indian guru complete with a sitar. He would offer cryptic pearls of wisdom (“It is written, that he who kicks the blind beggar, in the marketplace, during an eclipse, can only curse the camel, for its lack of discipline.”) only to be then showered with a bunch of flowers. There was also the Oracle (Van), a mystic who would read horoscopes in a Peter Lorre voice and also give viewers a little background into each sign. He rocked a pretty snazzy Fu Manchu moustache and goatee but came across as a pretty clumsy fellow who ended up knocking over and smashing at least one crystal ball per episode. In some respects, he was the antithesis to The Professor.

T.V. producer Riff Markowitz had made two shows for CHCH in Hamilton before coming up for the concept that would become The Hilarious House of Frightenstein. The station gave him the go-ahead in an ambitious attempt to appeal to the Toronto market for advertising dollars. The station enlisted veteran Canadian actor Billy Van who was a regular on their charades series Party Game. He ended up playing many of the main (and fringe) characters and is generally regarded as the heart and soul of the show.

In a real coup, the producers were able to entice Vincent Price to appear in the show. This was at a low point in his career, way before he was rediscovered by the likes of Tim Burton. Reportedly, Price took the job because he loved children and recognized that Frightenstein was a unique show with potential. He worked for his daily appearance rate and shot all of his stuff in four days (?!). One crew member remembers, “He would read the script to himself, put his head down for a few seconds and do a single take read on-camera. Next!”

The Hilarious House of Frightenstein’s cheap production values actually act in its favor and lend to the show’s B-movie charms. I think it’s safe to say that this show was responsible for me developing an interest in and a love for the horror genre. It was really the ideal introduction for a child growing up in the ‘70s – not too intense but just enough of a tantalizing taste of the macabre – albeit with a healthy dose of humor and educational content. There was nothing like it on T.V. at the time and there has been nothing like it since. The Hilarious House of Frightenstein was a true original. I would like to wrap things up with how Vincent Price ended every show… with a poem. There would be a shot of Price sitting next to Brucie as he ominously recounted, “The castle lights are growing dim. There's no one left but me ... and him. When next we meet in Frankenstone – don't come alone.” And then he blew out a candle. Cut to black.

NOTE: Production info was taken from the show's Wikipedia entry and also a fantastic fan site that I encourage you to check out.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Paranormal Activity 3

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 campfire shivers.”

However, Roger 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 interesting.

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.