Since 2009, the Paranormal Activity series has eclipsed the Saw franchise in topping both the domestic and worldwide box office gross during the weeks leading up to and proceeding the Halloween weekend. A combined worldwide gross of just over $370 million dollars from the two previous outings made a third film inevitable, and despite the on-screen decade changing to encompass a prequel, the basic voyeuristic concept stays exactly the same. In their first fictional feature-length debut, Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman take over the reins of the popular franchise and while they infuse their own directorial sensibilities upon the project, it ultimately fails to both engage and frighten the audience to any satisfying, bowel-movement inducing degree.
The year is 1988 and Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) are two seemingly normal sisters who are looked after by their mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) and their step-father Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). After numerous things go bump in the night, Dennis decides to set video cameras up at various locations throughout their home including their own marital bedroom, the young girl’s room and the downstairs living area. As the day and nights go by, video enthusiast Dennis along with help from his technologically savvy friend Randy (Dustin Ingram), begin to notice that all is not what it seems within the household and that a malevolent being may be specifically targeting members of his family. What takes place next comprises of loud noises, unexplained moving objects and another edition to the paranormal franchise in which the audience slowly experiences a family’s descent into madness as they try to both understand and overcome their experiences at hand.
The third film in the Paranormal Activity series isn’t a terrible film by any standards, but it does fail exponentially in two key areas. First of all, the third film of the scare-inducing trilogy offers up absolutely nothing that is new or innovative in any way, shape or form. The closest Joost and Schulman come in attempting to conjure up a bit of ingenuity is in the use of a mounted camcorder on top of a rotating axis, yet this device is severely underused and instead they opt more for the use of on and off-screen diegetic sound effects. While the narrative itself starts to become interesting as it slowly opens a revealing door of uncertainty to the viewer, potentially exposing what may be behind over two decades of terror in the lives of these two young women. But it instead opts to cut ties during the final act leaving many questions unanswered leading to underwhelming end to the potentially exciting exploration of the mythology behind over two decades of paranormal activity.
Secondly, if audience members have seen the first two films then they will well versed in how the series approach scaring the paying members of a theater senseless. The scene shifts from hand-held filming to a stationary shot during the night as the members of the family sleep, before an extended period, usually between thirty seconds and a minute, of absolutely nothing happening is utilized to emphasize the vulnerability of the characters, and then the ‘scare’ happens. Whether it is a banging door or screeching off-screen diegetic sounds, or some form of unexplained paranormal phenomenon such as levitation, after the first two films this predictability becomes ingrained within the viewer and it is easy to simply evade the scare because you can adequately predict when it is going to come. Aside from two sequences in which Joost and Schulman change the record so-to-speak and provide two very well crafted scenes, the majority of reuses the exact same format as the previous two films and therefore becomes stale, and most often than not, predictable.
Joost and Schulman have essentially created a re-hash of the first two films, except with young children replacing the older, more mature leading characters of the previous installments. Both young girls give exceptional performances considering the majority of the film hinges upon their interaction with the world around them, and the film itself is competently composed, even if the two decade old tapes do look like they have been meticulously preserved in a state of perpetual perfection. But, it is first and foremost a film within the prosperous horror genre, and Paranormal Activity 3 fails on a fundamental level to provide any substance, any originality, or any scares that manage to eclipse the terror of previous two films and add a new level of horror to the already spine-chilling series.