The Paranormal Activity franchise steps back in time for this third entry, revealing how and why sisters Katie and Kristi come to suffer demonic assaults later in life. We are back in 1988. The blended family of mother Julie (Lauren Bittner), daughters Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) and stepfather Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) are settling in to life together when the first odd things start happening.
Wedding video producer Dennis is the first to suspect the outright paranormal, and sets up cameras upstairs and down to capture events. Ominously, little Kristi has an imaginary friend, Toby, who, in proper Captain Howdy style, reveals himself to be all too real. What is he saying to Kristi? What does he want of her? Answers are forthcoming, and they are not reassuring.
The found-footage horror film is such a constraining form of storytelling that it is astonishing that there haven’t been many more turkeys of the Apollo 18 type than there have been. The PA series is certainly running the distinct risk of returning to the well one time too many, but this entry pulls off its aims with surprising panache, returning from said well with a pleasingly full bucket of fright, and marking a vast improvement over the tedious Paranormal Activity 2. Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman work some clever variations out of the form, most notably having Dennis install the downstairs camera on a rotating fan chassis. If there is one thing audiences of horror films have come to dread, it’s the panning camera, which is bound to reveal something frightening, and here we have a camera that is ALWAYS panning. Spectator anxiety is amply justified, most notably in a bravura sequence involving a babysitter.
Suspension of disbelief is strained in a few instances, primarily due to the fact that feature-length running time is reached thanks to some lazy characterization that makes Dennis and Julia look a little idiotic. Meanwhile, the night vision on the cameras is pretty remarkable for 1988. And the resolution, though dark and scary, is also rather predictable. But the jolts are expertly handled, and my fellow viewers were reduced to quivering wrecks, and when a movie pulls that off in such a sustained fashion, it can be forgiven a lot. I worry that the announced Paranormal Activity 4 really will be a bridge too far, but for now, we’re back in the pants-soiling atmosphere that made the first film such a treat.
Both theatrical and extended versions of the film are included. The latter runs ten minutes longer. The new scenes have some creepy moments, don’t advance the story particularly, and one of them actually opens up a plot hole.
One would think that a beautiful transfer would rather work against the illusion of reality that is so important to the success of this series. I mean, realistically, how good could VHS tapes from 1988 look? That Dennis is professional videographer helps here. In any event, the crystalline quality of the transfer works just fine. There is zero grain (barring that which is intentional), and the colours are natural in that rather cold, clinical way of videotape. The AVC codec averages about 32-33 Mbps – very nice indeed. The aspect ratio is 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen (again, not too likely for the era, but heck, neither is demonic possession, so let’s work with it).
Here’s how good the sound quality and placement of sound effects is: a knock at the door had me running upstairs to answer my door, and it was only when I discovered that there was no on there that I realized I had been faked out by the audio track. Nice. And when the big noises come, they are BIG, with zero distortion, and appropriately traumatizing. Dialogue is perfectly crisp. There is no score, of course, but plenty of scare. The experience is immersive in a way that many viewers will probably wish it was not. Heh-heh-heh.
Lost Tapes: A very short feature, this, just a few minutes long, really just two deleted scenes. One is a montage of Dennis scaring Julie. The other is the ad for his business.
Enormous, creepy fun. The extras are very thin on the ground, though, so we could well be looking at a double-dip in the not-too-distant future. Whatever. Pop the disc in, turn out the lights, crank the sound, and watch first-time viewers cry for their parents.