Fans of the first two Paranormal Activity films know full well that sisters Katie (Katie Featherstone) and Kristi (Sprague Grayden) had been tormented at some point in their childhood before enduring a resurgence of similar hauntings as adults. Paranormal Activity 3 proceeds to fill in those blanks, taking place in a pristinely captured 1988 as yet another man convinces yet another woman to record the supernatural shenanigans taking place in their home.
It’s handy that Katie and Kristi’s mom had a relationship with a wedding videographer (ill-defined here in the not-quite-finished cut that we were shown -- father? stepfather? boyfriend?), because he’s that much more prone to documenting the young girls’ increasingly aggressive encounters with an invisible friend named Toby. From here, we as an audience fall into the usual sub-routines of watching the footage -- first from one stationary camera, then two, then a third slyly (if improbably) placed on the base of an oscillating fan, with occasional handheld interludes -- and waiting for the Pavlovian drone that accompanies our dear demon's arrival.
The most remarkable quality of the Paranormal franchise above all other found-footage offerings is their repeated insistence on forcing the viewer to sit up and shut up, tasked with examining every frame for the next hint of domestic disruption rather than serving up scares on a silver platter. For some, a fine line separates scrutiny of the seemingly everyday from outright boredom, and for most, questions of logical human behavior remain amid the mayhem. This film won’t convert those already frustrated with the oft-stationary bump-in-the-night routine, but directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (of the questionably accurate documentary Catfish) acknowledge that fans know the formula by now and proceed to not mess with success.
If anything, they both pick up the pace and establish the period in small, critical ways; a possessed Lite-Brite is such a playful touch, it’s a pity that Teddy Ruxpin doesn’t follow its eerie, era-appropriate lead by coming to life. There isn’t a room in this California home that doesn’t have a set of lights dangling down from the ceiling for maximum sway while our family sleeps, while a game of “Bloody Mary” in the bathroom brings expectedly intense results. Between cheeky fake-out moments, genuine jolt cues, and more sinister suggestion, PA3 earns a greater share of goosebumps than its predecessor, culminating in an extended, ostensibly uncut sequence that echoes the franchise’s overall knack for impressively immediate scares and questionable judgment on behalf of the participants. (The adult actors are all suitably stubborn, and the young actresses are aptly screechy. I’d distinguish them by name, but a full list of credits eludes me in advance of the film’s October 21 release date.)
In terms of actually expanding the mythos, screenwriter Christopher Landon basically sticks with stall tactics, promising more of the same potential for “boo!” beats while not telling us much more about Katie and Kristi’s family that we didn’t already gather from the second film. This one leaves the door open to continue forth in the '80s or return to the present day to see what became of the now-possessed Katie, who briefly arrives at the start to introduce the VHS tapes that we’ll be watching, although they would’ve likely been destroyed, whether by an aforementioned fire or later villainy. I struggle to think that we’ll be seeing a Paranormal Activity 4 assembled out of Super 8 and ultrasound footage, but sillier things have happened in the name of keeping cash cows alive.
Is PA3 every bit the prequel that it could’ve been? Hardly, but a year-long turnaround on follow-ups leaves little room for any grand feat of creativity. For better or worse, this is more of the same, if creepier than it was the last time around. Good luck finding a better haunted house on 2,000 screens this Halloween.