Friday, 28 October 2011

Film Review | Paranormal Activity 3, dir. Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman

I am, I confess, an absolute sucker for found footage films.

It's a gimmick, I know, and a lot of folks have had enough of it already... though clearly, what with all the whining you hear about Paranormal Activity and its creepy kin, these cool cats can't bring themselves to look away either. Why is that?

If you ask me, I think it's because, at best, the found footage form can cut right to the quick of what makes great horror great, which is not to say the elaborate dismemberments of the SAW series - may it burn in hell in perfect peace - nor indeed the in-your-face silliness of some CG monster, a la Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, but rather those things that you cannot see, or say you saw with any certainty; those things you can only imagine.

The proof of these things is only ever circumstantial. In your bones you know they are there, these unspeakable, unknowable awful horrors; they're just ever-so-slightly off camera, but you can hear them and feel them and ultimately fear them, because the imagination knows no bounds. And the best found footage films exist almost entirely in the imagination. Who can resist the allure of that?

For about an hour, Paranormal Activity 3 is one such film: among, I would say, the genre's very strongest. For about an hour, during which time we follow Julie and her live-in husband Dennis - mother and father figure to baby Katie and ickle Kristi, the protagonists of Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity 2 respectively - during the autumn of 1988, the third installment of this evidently annual franchise seems, surprisingly, at the peak of its powers. For about an hour.

The rationale for the footage itself feels a matter of happenstance taken too far, but this is to my mind the only inherent drawback of the found form - the narrative need for there to be some reason, any reason, why someone has committed all that follows to film - and I am thus inclined to let it slide.

So the story goes: back in the dark days of tape, Dennis and his friend Randy Rosen operate a small business shooting and producing wedding videos, so when things start to go bump in the night, and Kristi's relationship with her imaginary friend Toby takes a dark turn, Dennis persuades Julie to let him set up cameras around the house, the better to catch an impossible predator in the act.

And that's really all you need to know, because the allure of this narrative is not its intricacy, or its subtlety, but rather those gaps and absences you must fill in for yourself. This is never more evident than in the sitting room-come-kitchen, which is so wide that to capture it, Dennis has to mount a camera on an oscillating base - a repurposed fan that pans, often excruciatingly slowly, from one area to the other, making for any number of Paranormal Activity 3's most effective moments. One recalls the definitive moment of Paranormal Activity 2; another, involving that old reliable Halloween costume - the white sheet become a ghost - works as a fond callback to a scene from El Orfanto. In both, the tension, nay the terror thick in the theater wherein I saw this second sequel, never mind in me, was born of what was obscured, and what we could not see: the figure that appears at the door as the fan-camera tracks across to the kitchen is spooky, sure, but what set grown men and woman to tittering like children in the winter wind was the awful absence of that figure when, ten nerve-shredding seconds later, the camera returns to the scene of the scare, only to reveal that the glimpsed thing, whatever it was or was not, is gone.

Now I didn't much care for Christopher Nicholas Smith as Dennis, but as Julie, the lovely Lauren Bittner - channeling a certain Deschanel-esque quality - made me long for the 80s all over again, and I really try not to make a habit of that. The kids were cute too: Jessica Tyler Brown as little Kristi particularly. Meanwhile Dustin Ingram's Randy Rosen was fun, and there are of course cameos from the little-seen leading ladies of the first and second films in the series. Across the board, in fact, the performances this time out are strong; a pleasant change of pace given the outlandish amateurishness of the cast the October before last.

There is a moment in the early-going of Paranormal Activity 3 that makes the movie, and a moment in the daft last act that breaks it. I won't spoil either, except to say neither one is what you think it is: in fact each works in its way to poke fun at what you probably thought, and indeed this installment of the Halloween franchise is easily the most good-humoured of the three. Alas, unsurprisingly, in its final fifteen minutes, Paranormal Activity 3 turns into exactly the sort of drivel detractors of found footage films will delight in taking apart. Let them eat cake, I say!

Me? Well, I enjoyed my cake just fine, though the icing - let's face it - the icing could have been better.

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