by Rob Gonsalves
There’s something to be said for a horror franchise that finds ways to creep around our defenses using the medium itself.The Paranormal Activity movies — you may as well get used to them, they’re not going anywhere anytime soon — turn us into nervous security guards staring at video footage, staring at the eerily placid and dead frame, staring at each corner of a room, staring, staring AND THEN SOMETHING HAPPENS. As narrative, these films have been lampooned and laughed at, rightly so, I suppose. And the more the movies try to explain everything, the goofier they get. But as pure nerve-ending cinema using stillness and quietude to build dread, this series is hard to beat. A good portion of Paranormal Activity 3 made me feel like a wire cruelly tightened on a winch. The use of a camera attached to a modified oscillating fan recalls, of all things, the devastating conclusion of Francis Coppola’s masterpiece of paranoia The Conversation.
"It's all about the dread."
This one, like the previous film, is a prequel. It goes back to 1988, when Katie, the haunted protagonist of the original film, and Kristi, her sister and the lead of the second film, were little girls. They live with their mom, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), who makes a meager living as a wedding-video producer. Dennis has video cameras and home editing equipment — his set-up looks plausibly clunky for the period. (Do not get me started on how a film set in 1988 is already a period film.) Dennis finds a different use for his tools when strange things begin happening around the house. Kristi keeps talking to an “imaginary friend” named Toby, sometimes in the dead of night. There are spooky sounds; there are things caught on video that are just off-kilter enough to be handwaved as VHS artifacting — at first.
Dennis sets up cameras in his and Julie’s bedroom, in the girls’ bedroom, and downstairs in the kitchen; the last camera he later modifies so that it pans slowly back and forth between the living room and the kitchen. A babysitter arrives, and the oscillating camera pans, rests on her, pans back. Something appears, then disappears, then appears again; the technique is memorably creepy. The directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, whose previous film Catfish was a skin-crawler of a documentary (whose authenticity has been heavily questioned), get us to fixate on the reveal/conceal/reveal rhythm of that camera, and in a later shot it leads to such an abrupt shock — to convince a skeptical character that something weird is indeed happening here — it releases our laughter.
Of course, leaving the house doesn’t mean leaving the weirdness behind. The family moves in with Julie’s mother, and Paranormal Activity 3 takes a hard left into literalism that raises more questions than it answers. (Paranormal Activity 4 will no doubt answer some and raise more.) In order to “add to the mythology” and provide some concrete justification for existing, the Paranormal Activity sequels have robbed the original film of its chilling randomness — the sense that anyone, like Katie, can mysteriously attract the amused attentions of a demon. Here we see why Katie and, later, Kristi were so besieged; it has something to do with the dearth of male children in the family, as described in the second film. It’s cheesy, like the revelation in Halloween II that the killer Michael Myers and the heroine Laurie Strode were actually siblings. What should be left vague and universally threatening becomes, with the addition of new material and old secrets, too specific to this one family; their terrors become solely theirs, not ours.
For most of the film, though, we’re scanning those dead frames for evidence of something, and we’re frightened. I enjoy sitting among a rapt audience for films that so intensely demand attention and absorption. Occasionally you hear a ripple effect of shock in the theater, as one person notices something bizarre and gasps, and then it spreads to other viewers. These movies bring subtlety and mystery — of the visual kind, at least — back to the horror genre. A shadow is just barely glimpsed in a doorway, unannounced by any sort of shrieking “sting” on the soundtrack. Things are there and then not there; things are not there and then, inexplicably, there. This series makes a virtue of low budgets and limited technique; Paranormal Activity 3 cost $5 million, still peanuts these days, the added expense owing to a few shots that could only be realized with computer effects.I don’t think much of where the “story” has gone and is apparently going, but in the moments that count, those silent wolf-hour compositions of gathering dread, the franchise has earned a place of pride in horror history.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=21747&reviewer=416
originally posted: 10/24/11 10:05:24