Reigning king of the "Gotcha!" moment, Paranormal Activity is back – and though the premise may have worn thin, (how many compulsive videographers can one extended family have?) its minimalist scare tactics are as effective as ever. Scream for scream, the theater experience is without rival; hushed gasps, nervous tittering, and shrieks of surprise are empirical evidence of the films' effectiveness. Hence the backlash when Paranormal Activity hit home video: these movies cater to a crowd.
A prequel of sorts, Paranormal Activity 3 rewinds the franchise to 1988, illuminating the origins of the Presence that ran amok in parts one and two. Helmed by Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the flick treads familiar territory, but keeps the audience on its toes. One of the major criticisms leveled against Oren Peli's original was its predictable cycle of daytime exposition and midnight scares. Rinse and repeat.
Screenwriter Christopher B. Landon, who also wrote the underwhelming Paranormal Activity 2, does a better job this time of pitching the odd changeup. With an omnipresent atmosphere of unease, no moment feels entirely safe. And it goes without saying that the freaky stuff is much more explicitly freaky. Rest assured the Rey family doesn't own a pool, let alone a cleaning robot.
Probably the single most brilliant technical addition to the Paranormal Activity repertoire is the oscillating camera. Panning ominously between kitchen and living room, the simple mechanic works like a suspense machine. Joost and Schulman certainly get their money's worth out of the gimmick, milking it for some of their whitest white-knuckle moments. Fashioned from a tabletop fan, the device is a perfect metaphor for the franchise itself: cheap, homemade, effective.
But for ingenuity and inventiveness, the original is still tops. For all its merciless suspense, Paranormal Activity 3 falls back on a few too many false alarms ("Gotcha!") and bad payoffs, and offers no real innovations in imagery. From Poltergeist to The Exorcist, it's easy to tell where the directors pulled inspiration, almost copy-and-pasting classic moments into the found footage aesthetic.
Then again, anyone expecting real innovation from the third Paranormal Activity film is barking up the wrong tree. Part of the fun is how loosely defined the abilities of the otherworldly antagonist are. It possesses, communicates, and manipulates. But wait, there's more! Paranormal Activity 3 plays like a grab bag of horror ideas and iconography. Like any grab bag, not everything inside is interesting.
For one, handheld footage plays a more prominent role than ever, which strains the believability of some key sequences. Then there's hokey filler like the "Bloody Mary" urban legend, which squarely fills the vacancy left by the Ouija board on the Paranormal Activity blueprint. And who could forget Randy (Dustin Ingram) and his transparent, annoying attempts at comic relief?
Paranormal Activity 3 doesn't reinvent the franchise. It's not even the best Paranormal Activity film. It doesn't need to be. Its aim is to refine the series' mechanics and reinvigorate audience interest, and it succeeds. So what's next? Likely what keeps Paramount executives up at night is how to squeeze the supernatural saga for every penny it's worth. Long live the reigning king of "Gotcha!"