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[Review] FF ’11: First Thoughts on ‘Paranormal Activity 3’!

Bloody Disgusting’s Corey Mitchell, who has been blogging live from Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, is a well known hater of the Paranormal Activity franchise. To me that makes him the perfect person to review the third film in the franchise, Paranormal Activity 3, which opens in theaters October 21 from Paramount Pictures.

If Mr. Mitchell could be swayed into liking the third film, there has to be something good about it, right? Directed by Catfish team Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, below you’ll find the first ever review here on Bloody that he says is “breezy, smart, tense, and is sure to raise the hairs on the nape of your neck.” I’m just excited to know the third film isn’t just a repeat of scares like in PA2.

Paranormal Activity 3 PosterI am not a fan of the Paranormal Activity franchise. While I appreciate the backstory of how the first feature was made and eventually got discovered, I did not find it scary in the least. The second film was far too mechanical and repetitive to pull me in, and the Hollywood tinkering seemed to remove what little charm the first one had to offer.

Obviously, another visit to The Blair Witch Project-cum-Poltergeist well held little appeal for me. But, since I had been attending Fantastic Fest 2011 in Austin, Texas, for the past week and had enjoyed quite a few horror films, including You’re Next and Sleep Tight, I figured I would give Paranormal Activity 3 (PA3) a shot.

Of course, I had no guarantee that it would actually be shown. The only thing that was certain was that there would be a second Secret Screening at Fantastic Fest (the first was Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In). Rumors started to spread via Twitter throughout the day that the Secret Screening might be PA3, so I decided to drive back up to Austin from San Antonio and take my chances.

Man, am I glad I did.

After the hour-long Indy race to the famed Alamo Drafthouse, I pulled into the parking lot directly across from Zombie Girl herself, teen-wunderkind film director Emily Hagins (Pathogen, My Sucky Teen Romance). I held her presence up as a good omen for what was to come for the night.

It was still at least four hours before the midnight Secret Screening and also I had boarding passes to see the hilarious crime thriller, Snowman’s Land. Great dark comedy that put me in the perfect mood for what was in store.

After Snowman’s Land ended, I hung out in the Alamo hallway chatting with different film lovers I had met throughout the week. We exchanged opinions on what we loved and loathed throughout the fest and cracked jokes about the large presence of security detail for the Secret Screening. California resident Mark Fulton only half-joked, “The more security present, the shittier the movie.” His sentiments seemed to mirror many of the festival’s “Super Fans” who were already complaining about not wanting the secret film to be PA3.

While waiting, several announcements were repeated over the PA that no electronic devices of any kind would be allowed into the Secret Screening and that we would need to return such items to our vehicles or have them temporarily confiscated. I returned to my car, stashed my cell phone, and proceeded to stand in line to pass through a metal detector. Seriously.

I was one of the first people in the theater and scored a great seat directly in the middle. Seconds later, actor Elijah Wood sauntered onto the same aisle. Unfortunately, the fellow next to me hadn’t bathed that day so I decided to head for higher grounds, brushing up against the tiny Good Son actor (I’m not going to call him a Hobbit like everyone else here) as I found an even better vantage point. Seated next to a couple of Super Fans, we, of course, talked about our favorite films of the fest. The two gentlemen did not seem to be big horror fans though they did like Sleep Tight, so they were okay in my book. They did tell me, however, that they were definitely not interested in seeing PA3.

I ordered hot chocolate chip cookies with vanilla ice cream, spotted Dominic Monaghan (Lost, The Day) next to Wood directly in front of me, and eagerly anticipated Fantastic Fest braintrust Tim League’s entrance into the theater. Sure enough, he came dressed to the nines in a $10 Wal*Mart purchased chintzy powder-blue tuxedo in honor of the (what was originally The Loved Ones-themed) prom night at the nearby Highball bowling alley/arcade/bar. League teased the audience that we were going to see The Little Mermaid 2, but soon dropped the chicanery to reveal that the Secret Screening would actually be Paranormal Activity 3.

The announcement was met with a few tepid handclaps, very noticeably audible sighs, and one pronouncement from a Super Fan on my row that he’d “Rather be dead!” Several people got out of their seats and walked out. Too bad they didn’t leave beforehand as I’m sure the massive line of people who waited outside in the stand-by line for several hours in the scorching Texas heat would have loved to be inside watching the film.

Fantastic Fest has been instrumental in the successful rise of the PA franchise from being one of the early supporters of the first film to helping launch a viral campaign for the second. League declared that he is a big fan of the franchise and he was super-stoked to present an unfinished cut at Fantastic Fest. He then welcomed to the stage directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (known for the potentially pseudo-documentary Catfish), and PA and PA2 actress Katie Featherston. Much cussing, laughter, and praise for Texas and Fantastic Fest ensued. The intro was short and sweet and we were immediately launched into the film.

Featherston, as Katie, actually only appears in PA3 for approximately five minutes. She is there mainly to set up the look back for this prequel. This is done by handing over a box of VHS videocassette tapes from her recently deceased grandmother to her sister, Kristi (Sprague Grayden from PA2), which contains footage of their mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner), from 1988. Once again, PA3 revisits the found-footage format of the first two films to tell its story.

Plotwise, PA3 does not differ much from its predecessors. A young couple live in a ridiculously expensive-looking home they could never afford, hear strange noises in said home at night, and the man in the relationship, with apparently lots of free time on his hands and an insane amount of recording equipment, decides to record the goings on in the house so as to hopefully figure out what the hell is going on.

PA3 sets up the couple rather nicely, compared to the other films. Bittner’s mother character, Julie, is a direct descendant of JoBeth Williams’s uber-hot mom from Poltergeist, even down to the “innocent girl gets naughty by smoking a doobie” conceit. Her boyfriend, Dennis, (and I’m sorry to say that the studio has cleverly not revealed his name anywhere so I have no idea who he is), is a wedding videographer, thus explaining his fascination with cameras and constant filming. The couple has a strong, mostly believable rapport, as well as a solid relationship with the younger versions of Katie and Kristi (child actresses who also remain nameless at this time). They are joined by Dennis’s assistant, Randy (actor also unknown), who provides just enough comic relief without being too annoying.

PA3 travels down almost the exact same path as the first two films in regard to the setup of the characters, the disturbances within the house, and how those disturbances escalate into louder jolts for the audience. The main thrills come from the reactions of the girls during their sleep, especially Kristi, who claims to have a not so friendly, not so unrealistic, imaginary friend named “Toby,” who apparently is one pissed off ghost. The Toby scares provide some of the most delicately chilling moments of the film, especially when it appears that the little girls are put into harm’s way.

The “explanatory reveal” as to why these things are occurring to Julie and her family are also touched upon in the second film – demonology and deals made with dark forces. Here, they make more sense and have much greater impact. Especially, in the final 15 minutes of this very brisk 85-minute thrill ride.

Granted, there are flaws galore with PA3 mainly dealing with the logistics of videotaping and also the reality that the actions described in the prequel would have made the characters’ choices in the first two films make vastly different. Of course, I’ve never wandered into a PA film expecting anything remotely close to logic, so these can be rather easily overlooked and forgiven.

What I enjoyed most about PA3 is that it wastes very little time getting to the creepy parts and sustaining them throughout the film. And there are a ton of them. Some of the most effective ones involve the creative use of an oscillating fan as a rotating camera base to catch the shenanigans in the couple’s kitchen, as well as their living room. One of the biggest scares comes from the “fan cam” and had Elijah Wood and Dominic Monaghan, as well as the rest of the audience, hooting, hollering, and applauding loudly.

While no means a perfect horror film, PA3, will easily satisfy fans of the first two movies in the franchise, and will, quite possibly, bring even more new converts, like me, into the fold. It’s breezy, smart, tense, and is sure to raise the hairs on the nape of your neck. A definitive thrill-ride that should be investigated by any lover of horror films.

*The unfinished version screened at Fantastic Fest does not contain many of the scenes in either of the trailers that are currently circulating the internet. I am very curious to see what version actually gets released.

3.5/5 Skulls



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