'Paranormal Activity 3' taps into primal fear

"Paranormal Activity 3" earned $55 million in its opening weekend. SOURCE PARAMOUNT PICTURES
October 31, 2011

Do you recall that email that circulated about a decade ago, in which the recipient was asked to stare at a tranquil, static scene for a specific time? The email requested the viewer attempt to spot a particular object, only to be violently interrupted by a random shrieking ghoul that would flash on screen before the time was up.

That primal scare tactic is the essence of the "Paranormal Activity" franchise. The audience stares at mundane, sometimes completely motionless footage, awaiting the next jump, hiss, crash or boo. You have to applaud the filmmakers for their ability to effectively wring tension for three films using the exact same style, with only slight variations.

The films have been mocked for such simplicity, but here we sit at the third outing, and it manages to muster the highest horror gross to date ($55 million in its opening weekend alone), effectively toppling the former reigning Halloween franchise, the "Saw" films, in its climb to the top.

This outing takes us to the roots, which we've recently learned from "The Thing" can typically be a death knell for films. Most of "3" is set in 1988, supposedly shot on VHS, and documents the childhood of Katie and Kristi, the sister protagonists of the first and second films, respectively. They live with their mother (played by Lauren Bittner) and her videographer boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith, who bears a striking resemblance to the first film's Micah).

After a series of strange events occurs throughout the house, Dennis uses the tools of his trade to surveil the house. What he captures begins to escalate in creepiness, from little Kristi's conversations with her "imaginary" friend, to various thumps and bumps, to an ultimate reveal of the source of all that familial spookiness.

And lest you think all the camera tricks of the franchise have been used, "3" has a nice little trick up its sleeve with Dennis's makeshift oscillating camera view that slowly pans between two separate rooms. This leads to many of the film's go-to sources for scares as we witness various things appearing in frame, only to have the camera teasingly move away, then back to have them vanish. It's an incredibly effective trick that does not wear out its novelty.

The directors on this outing are Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, who courted praise (and controversy) with their "documentary" that ignited Sundance last year, "Catfish." The two had previously demonstrated their ability to mount tension in that film and clearly know exactly what it takes to keep it creepy.

A word of warning, though. Much of what was shown in trailers has been exorcised from the final cut. That's not to say that there aren’t sufficient scares to be had throughout.

I'm not sure how much more the franchise can explore its own little universe without the wheels falling off, but for this outing, "Paranormal Activity 3" manages to still effectively tap into those very basic primal endorphins that make it a worthwhile jolt of old-fashioned fear just in time for Halloween.