Halloween Endurance Test: Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
Tonight we tackled Paranormal Activity 3, and I was mighty surprised with the results. Coming into the movie I wasn’t expecting much. I had heard a lot about the original Paranormal Activity when it came out 2 years back, but never sat down with it mainly due to “the Blair Witch factor:” shaky cam drives me insane. Shaky cam coupled with spooks derived from a belief in spiritualism, and my avoidance was a sure thing. (Seriously, one of the only subjects I’m known to become heatedly angry about is spirits, ghosts, etc.) So naturally, I went into the theater prepared to be more bored than scared.
Now I’ve done movie premieres in the past. I saw Zombieland when it was still a true-blue “new release” and loved it. I saw a sneak preview of the Stepfather remake; only the review never made it past the note stages during the worst Halloween Endurance Test year ever: (fuck you) 2009. Paranormal Activity 3 marks the first time I’ve seen an already established franchise on premiere night though, a distinction that I might need to use more often.
The third installment in the series, filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman already know ahead of time what works and what doesn’t. Allowing the filmmakers to focus solely on providing one “what the fuck?” moment after another. Creating a blur of a movie, lots of nothing happening, followed by a quickly inserted sped-up shot of someone running across the frame. Occurring periodically enough to keep you interested; these small scares all building to the big shock at the end.
So let’s start with the beginning, which, chronologically, is the ending. A house is burglarized, with the thieves only taking a box of old VHS tapes. Everything we, the audience, sees past this point is ostensibly footage from the tapes. Though, in a franchise loophole that has yet to be exploited, there’s not a convenient wrap-up at the end, so what we see might have nothing to do with the crime at the beginning. Thus laying the first layer of plausible deniability.
All the (alleged) footage comes from Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), a wedding cinematographer, who spends every waking moment with a camera glued to his face; reality television-style. This will actually count as “what the fuck?” moment number 2; as MTV’s Real World: New York, the commonly held barometer for reality television didn’t premiere until 1992; 4 years after the footage here occurs. Commonplace today, I have to wonder if any of the kids in the theater with me realized how out of place all those cameras would’ve seemed back then.
Even something as obliquitous as the (failed) making of a sex tape at the beginning of the film rings false. Sure, people made sex tapes back then, but few, if any, looked like that. Forethought of angles, focuses, and visibility not really becoming part of the lexicon until the porno industry became a recognized billion dollar industry.
Paranormal Activity 3 is a love letter to the 80s written for people too young to remember the 80s. This is nothing but a maelstrom of outdated cultural signifiers; with no clues provided to help you identify them.
Take the Satanists; easily one of the film’s most chilling scenes. Short, their on-screen time is easily less than 20 seconds, but that’s all that is needed, as everyone in the theater already knows what Satanists look like. What they might miss, however, is how popular a scare Satanism was in the 80s; with books and TV specials dedicated to uprooting them.
Creating a strange paradox at the end, where you feel the uneasiness inherent in what’s taking place on-screen, mixed with a distinct “at home” feeling you get from recognizing all the symbols. Making the film interesting for two different groups of viewers who would normally have divergent tastes. Believers in spiritualism will enjoy it as a fictional mockup of their worldview. While non-believers will be able to relive everything they’ve learned about on their path to skepticism.