Fantastic Fest Review: ‘Paranormal Activity 3’

"It really is the biggest Paranormal Activity, if bigger minimalism is possible."

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Paranormal Activity 3 screened at Fantastic Fest as Secret Screening #2. We had a clue when manila envelopes with VHS videotapes labeled September 1988 began showing up around Austin. They say the film is not 100% finished, but the content is sound so there shouldn’t be any big changes after this screening.

The film opens in Kristi’s house as Katie brings over a box of videotapes. Then we find out that after Kristi’s house was ransacked in Paranormal Activity 2, the only thing missing was the videotapes. What follows, I presume, is the video taped footage from Katie and Kristi’s childhood.

I really like the way each sequel opens up this story. Two people talking and sleeping wasn’t that compelling. An extended family and interrelated backstory made Paranormal 2 a real movie. Paranormal Activity 3 adds more characters and history, and frankly just more minimalist set pieces to make it the best Paranormal Activity yet. The most paranormal of any Activity? Or the most activity in any Paranormal?

Visually this is a monumental leap for the Paranormal Activity series. They’ve really gotten graceful at staging events and choreographing the camera for expertly crafted reveals. There are some long takes where impossible fetes happen in camera without cuts. It’s probably a computer controlled camera but I’d like to think someone’s crafted the most elaborate Michel Gondry ruse for the sake of minimalist horror.

It really is the biggest Paranormal Activity, if bigger minimalism is possible. What they achieve between the kitchen and living room is incredible, even more impressive than dragging Kristi down the stairs. It’s the biggest payoff, as in something really happens in the end. Short of crashing a lunar lander into a spaceship, they achieve both a climax for the action and a resolution for the story. Yes, that’s a spoiler for a movie no one else liked.

The genius setup is a rotating camera that pans between the living room and the kitchen. That allows you to see two scenes simultaneously, and then those scenes interact. But the classic setups in the locked off bedroom shots, or handheld sequences work well too. They even have a time lapse bed standing, because that’s the catch phrase of the Paranormal Activity franchise.

Like any young couple with their first video camera, these two actually start making a sex tape. So you’ve got a classic horror cliché and a found footage joke, but you can blame the demons for interrupting before we get to see boobies. Boy this was one hot family though. First Katie, then her sister Kristi and now their mom was a babe too.

There are still moments of “why are they taping this” but by now that’s part of the fun. What erroneous footage are they going to include, what’s a misdirect and what’s actually a surprise?

Little Katie and little Kristi are just adorable. There are some fun ‘80s memorabilia lying around. There are funny little innocent inside jokes like a parent telling a rambunctious little Katie, “You’re a little monster.”

The VHS format isn’t that different than the modern day hi-def video. It’s bulkier when you see the cameraman in a mirror, but it’s still a stepfather documenting hours and hours at the house because he suspects some paranormal activity. The footage is just as clean as the previous films. They didn’t add tracking problems, which they’d surely have since he’s shooting on SLP mode.

The sound is obviously enhanced. That’s a cheat but a fun cheat. The boom of a door slamming would not be that clear on a camcorder mike. Even the demon sound would come out echo-y. You know what I’m talking about if you ever shot with VHS camcorders. I guess that’s the curse creating a 5.1 sound mix on a mono VHS.

I really hope they continue in this direction for the series. Paranormal Activity 4 should be a silent film on ‘70s 8mm film. Then they can go to a hand cranked camera and Paranormal Activity 6 should just be an impressionistic montage of stills from an old lightbox camera. I’m serious about the silent film though.