The Paranormal Activity films have had their detractors, but there’s one thing you can say in their favour, and that’s that they pare the horror genre back to its barest essentials. The first Paranormal Activity, a belated yet deceptively well-done entry in the found footage canon, scared the hell out of audiences with little more than a static camera, an underlit room and some slamming doors.
Paranormal Activity 2 was broadly the same, but added rattling pots and pans (extremely high-quality pots and pans, I recall), a sentient robot pool cleaner and an injured dog. And one year on, we come to Paranormal Activity 3, which has all the elements we need for a decent, scary evening at the pictures: there are creepy kids with an imaginary friend, weird shapes lurking at the periphery of the screen, and lots of things that go bump in the night, all shot from a grainy first-person perspective.
It’s 1988. Dennis is a wedding photographer who lives with his girlfriend Julie (Lauren Bittner) and her two young daughters, Katie and Kristi (Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown). But late one night, a strange occurrence leads him to think that a ghost may be lurking somewhere in his spacious, all-American home. And given that this is a Paranormal Activity sequel, he decides to set video cameras up all over the house in the hope of catching the apparition on tape.
By now, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the already thin premise of the Paranormal Activity series has been stretched to breaking point. There are, after all, only so many ways you can make people jump by pointing a camera at an empty room and have a picture fall off the wall. But directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (whose previous film was the was-it-or-wasn’t-it-real documentary, Catfish) and writer Christopher Landon find some cunning new ways of scaring us.
Many of these are absurdly simple. Dennis’ trick of strapping a video camera to the stand of an oscillating desk fan, thus giving the audience a point of view that constantly pans from left to right between kitchen and dining room, is a device that provides the film with some quite brilliant moments of tension, and some of its most jolting scares.
I’m not going to spoil the film by providing a single hint of what these scares are or when they happen, but some of them are genuinely frightening. Joost and Schulman could be criticised for slotting in a few too many false shocks early on in the film, but you’ll soon forget these as the tension begins to rise. And full credit to everyone involved – once the parnormal activities do begin to kick in, the fear steadily climbs, almost without fault, until its final, disturbing shot.
At one point, I was surprised to see one of the cinema’s ushers wander down the darkened aisle, and stand off to the right near the fire exit. For a moment, I wondered what on Earth she was doing – looking out for people recording the film on their mobile phone or something, I thought. But then, something monumentally scary unfolded on the screen, and everyone in the little audience I sat with all leapt out of our seats in unison. It was then that I realised what the usher was up to – she’d wandered down to the front to get a better view of our reaction.
It seems that Paranormal Activity 3’s makers have enjoyed dreaming up ways of scaring their audience as much as that usher enjoyed watching us all leap about like frightened little children. This third film in the series is, for my money, the scariest yet. It’s understood what was disturbing about the original film – the stark, empty frames, the aching sense of waiting and wondering what may be about to happen next – but has also understood that it has to find creative new ways of making the popcorn fly out of our laps.
This third film cleverly finds a way to dovetail with the events of the earlier entries, showing the troubled childhoods of Katie and Kristi, while also standing on its own (spectral) feet as a watchable horror movie in its own right. Its 80s setting also allows its makers to put a Teddy Ruxpin toy to incidental yet exceptionally eerie use. I always knew those horrible dolls couldn’t be trusted.
Paranormal Activity 3 may be just another found footage flick, and yet another movie where the protagonist keeps his camera rolling, irrespective of how horrifying events become, but it’s without doubt the most sweaty-palmed, pulse-quickening movie I’ve seen in a cinema all year.