Retro Review: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 (2011){0}

Horror sequels are a double-edged sword for their producers. Present a series of stand-alone follow-ups, like the old Friday the 13th franchise, and the films end up being little more than carbon copies of one another. On the other hand, if you’re intent on creating an ongoing series that keeps a bunch of plot-threads percolating, you chance alienating newcomers and you risk dangers like silliness or confusion. (Even a relative fan of the Saw series will admit it gets more than a little convoluted the longer it lurches on.) Fortunately the producers of the second Paranormal Activity sequel have found a way to tackle the “soap opera horror sequel” with just a small dose of craftiness and originality.

The on-screen template remains virtually the same as what’s found in Paranormal Activity (2009) and Paranormal Activity 2 (2010): several cleverly-placed home video cameras capture a basic American family as they deal with a (gradually more threatening) paranormal threat. The first film dealt with poor Katie and her cocksure boyfriend Micah; the second on Katie’s sister, Kristi, and her unfortunate husband Dan; the third chapter, not unexpectedly, leaps back to the late ’80s, and it offers us a few creepy reasons as to why Katie and Kristi seem to have such insurmountable problems with otherworldly demons later in life.

So while the 1988 setting adds a small bit of freshness to the proceedings, the “period detail” is virtually non-existent. The only difference is that the home video cameras, installed and operated by the girls’ stepfather, are larger and clunkier. Act I sets up the bland but likable characters; Act II offers some creepy teases and some clues about the “visitor” and his origins; then the home stretch is a fairly well-orchestrated series of thrills, chills, and videotaped spills. Suffice to say that PA3 does an efficient enough job of delving into the girls’ backstory while still managing to adhere (very closely) to the well-traveled formula of the last two films. That’s an extra wordy way of saying “if you liked the first two, you’ll like this one,” but don’t be surprised if you start to feel a little tired of the formula by now.

To be fair, co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish) do inject more humor than we’re used to from earlier entries, and they do find some sly and subtle scares amidst the bigger and crazier ones. Other assets in the sequel’s corner include two adorable young actresses, a quick editorial approach that makes the numerous plot-holes just flit on by, a powerful approach to sound design that should have audiences jumping, and a few surprisingly effective set-pieces that earn some legitimate scares, regardless of how familiar they may start to seem.