Why do we enjoy horror? Even if fear is a negative feeling, everybody likes to be scared. The modern world is a safe place where we don’t need to hunt for food, run from predators or fight for survival. But while we no longer experience the primal fears of our ancestors, we are still exposed to stress every day, yet without the resolution of a physical struggle that would ease the adrenalin. We need an external stimulus to provide that release.
Whether we choose extreme sports or prefer to watch horror films, the reason is the same. In the genre of “found footage” films, if [REC] is the rollercoaster and The Blair Witch Project is the ghost ride, Paranormal Activity 3 is neither the bungee jump nor the merry-go-round. It is more akin to the Sunday visit to elderly grandparents, an afternoon spent listening to the conversation of strangers waiting for something to happen.
The fourth film in the unfeasibly successful sequence, including Paranormal Activity: Tokyo Night, this prequel repeats elements from the earlier entries but fails to bring any relevant innovation to the series or the genre. Presented as VHS recordings from the childhood of Katie and Kristi, the troubled adults of the first two Paranormal Activity films, we learn about the origin of their haunting, but the explanation of “granny witch” seems to be forced into the narrative, destroying the mystery surrounding the girls and their supernatural stalker.
Despite the alleged 1988 setting, the picture quality is obviously higher quality than would have been possible on the equipment of that era, and the modern frame in which these videos are being viewed shows none of the degradation or dropout that would be expected, nor the “snow” effect in the edits or any other artefacts associated with VHS tapes. Only the presence of an babysitter dressed in her disco finest indicates any real attempt to anchor the time period of the film.
Already hampered by technical inconsistency, belief in the film is made harder still by bland an unconvincing dialogue. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman need to remember that, while they may be making a film that emulates “found footage,” it is not found footage, it is a film, and the primary requirement of film is narrative; simply presenting strung together footage and calling it a film is insufficient to create a story where none exists.
The only new element that differentiates Paranormal Activity 3 from the rest of the series is the panning camera that is introduced. Exploiting the fear of “don’t look behind you” should build tension by forcing the audience to do exactly that with the slow yet inevitable movement of the camera, but the directors fail to deliver the necessary climax. Broken lightshades, a ghost in a white sheet and flying furniture are nothing we haven’t already experienced in Beetlejuice and Poltergeist, one funnier and the other scarier than this.
Why does Paranormal Activity 3 fail so completely when other “found footage” films such as The Blair Witch Project or [REC] succeed? The key factor is that the audience must believe in the conceit, or at least be sufficiently entertained to be willing to suspend disbelief, and buy into the pretence that what is seen on screen is real. In both those films, there was a convincing reason to believe the events would be filmed, one a student project, the other a reality television programme, and to believe that the characters would continue to film in the circumstances they find themselves, to document what happened, in the hope that even if they didn’t survive, others might learn of their fate, and take action against the authorities responsible.
Even in the first two Paranormal Activity films, the home security monitors were a reasonable contrivance, but Paranormal Activity 3 loses credibility when it is pointed out that there is more footage to be sifted through than there are hours in the day, then sacrifices any remaining sense in the final scene where a character chooses to run through the darkened house with a heavy camcorder, prioritising his documentation of events over finding his missing children.
When all the producers are serving the audience is reheated steak, not even the excellent performances of Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown as Katie and Kristi are enough to lift the audience beyond boredom interspersed with the very normal activity of occasional laughter.
Paranormal Activity 3 is currently on general release