Monday, October 24, 2011

Paranormal Activity 3

Videotaping In California, Circa 1988, At Your Own Risk

Jessica Tyler Brown as Kristi (left) and Chloe Csengery as Katie, in 1988 in "Paranormal Activity 3". 
Paramount Pictures

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, October 24, 2011

Where would California have been in 1991 and 1992 without videotape?  Thanks to George Holliday we were able to see first hand the L.A.P.D. brutality against Rodney King in 1991.  We saw the havoc by angry mobs in the wake of the acquittal of Mr. King's assailants in 1992.  It turns out however, that we missed an earlier signature moment in California's storied history four years prior in 1988, but fortunately (or not) "Paranormal Activity 3", which opened last Friday in the U.S. and Canada and other countries, has evidence of the supernatural on display.

Directed by "Catfish" helmers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, "Paranormal Activity 3" shuffles through its assortment of players in what is basically a spoof of the original and best film of the series.  Katie (Katie Featherston) returns briefly, as does her younger sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden from "Paranormal 2".)  "Paranormal 3", a prequel, bounces from 2006 to 2005 to 2000 to 1988 and around California before settling on the city of Calabasas and the home of Julie, the mother of young Katie and Kristi, and her live-in boyfriend Dennis, who, surprise, surprise, just can't put down his video camera, which he tests out after observing something in the house that doesn't look or feel right.  A friend who believes in the supernatural supports the cause for solidarity's sake.  [An aside: Calabasas, by the way, has been dubbed the porn capital (apparently many such films are made there), but this film avoids any kind of "torture porn" in its horror.]

"Paranormal Activity 3" follows the formula of the prior two films.  Night by night we glimpse the bedroom of Julie (Lauren Bittner) and Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith.)  On some nights there's nothing to see there.  On other nights the adult bedroom gets busy, though not by those lying in it.  Young Katie and Kristi's room has a sweet, idyllic ambiance but that poster of what looks like Bette Midler in "The Rose" sits too comfortably on the wall above Kristi's bed.  The kids' bedroom looks too perfect.  Time to rearrange it just a little. 

The new film has its red herrings and Poltergeist ways but nothing beats an old-fashioned scare.  While staying away from gore, Mr. Joost and Mr. Schulman use deft yet more overt scares consonant with the typical horror film, but the sleight of hand and the imperceptible remain almost throughout.  Almost. 

The script by Christopher Landon, based on Oren Peli's frightfully good original 2009 film, has holes as wide as cheese and characters with secrets to perhaps die for but young Kristi's imaginary friend Toby is an invisible secret that is more than some can handle.  We know little of why demons have chosen this otherwise sunny, carefree family of characters, but we also know that children should be believed.  If they say there's something in that closet, there's something in there.

At least in this third edition people can be something other than scared or voyeurs.  There's brief foreplay on view, which if nothing else adds dimension to the activities of otherwise mundane adult characters.  Aside from perhaps a swimming date or a birthday party we rarely see this family outdoors.  Still, "Paranormal Activity 3" is more playful and scares better than its dreadful forerunner of 2010, with its extended looks into dark closets and pan and scan techniques associated not just with cameras but with the VHS editions of too many movies, editions that were all the rage 20-plus years ago.  The film's effect however, is ephemeral, lasting only until the familiar credits roll, and not getting under the skin for days after like Mr. Peli's film did. 

[With Hollywood not too far away from Calabasas, I'm thinking that young Katie and Kristi had more than enough material to work with to make a scary movie of their own, scarier than the one made by the kids in "Super 8".]

The directors here have fun with self-parody, gimmickry and the kind of tomfoolery with fate that makes some jaded viewers gleefully welcome the demise of nonsensical characters who beg for their end with their own stupidity.  Yes, it's a movie, but in "Paranormal Activity 3" suspension of disbelief is sometimes put to a severe test. 

What's clear throughout this successful franchise is that men, specifically dark-haired white men, are the sole targets of the wrath of the demon(s) that haunt and kill.  (Blonde-haired young white women can for once take a breather.  And there's no black character around to be early horror film fodder.)  Are the women of "Paranormal Activity 3" rebelling against California housewifery and lazy men and their toys?  Have they decided that a refreshingly different lease on life is the way to get a man's attention? 

There's little doubt that technology is the enemy of the unseen marauding forces in "Paranormal Activity 3".  If "video killed the radio star" a few years before 1988, that same video is under siege by the paranormal in California.  Trying to see the unseen on video or what happened before the unseen gets seen -- which sounds a little like a defense position the L.A.P.D. attorneys argued in Mr. King's beating -- is quite a task.  This film makes this much clear: if you're ever in the Golden State and a member of the fairer sex advises you to put down that video camera you're playing with, you'd better listen.

With: Jessica Tyler Brown and Chloe Csengery.

"Paranormal Activity 3" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some violence, language brief sexuality and drug use.  The film's running time is one hour and 25 minutes.

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