Halloween devolved into the insipid Halloween II three decades ago has a horror franchise managed to squander all of its early potential in quite as few steps as the Paranormal Activity movies: Oren Peli's 2009 original* was a simple machine perfectly-designed to be as scary as it possibly could; 2010' Paranormal Activity 2 was a ramshackle, intermittently effective attempt at doing exactly the same things with a larger cast to dilute the horror; and now directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, of the controversial pseudo-documentary Catfish, along with PA2 co-writer Christopher B. Landon, have cranked out Paranormal Activty 3, and it is fucking stupid.
We are a long way away indeed from the simple elegance of "two people film themselves as a malevolent paranormal entity acts all terrifying in their house", when you need to use a guide map of the first two pictures just to explain the plot of the current one: in 2005, Daniel Rey (Brian Boland) films his wife Kristi (Sprague Grayden) painting the nursery for their soon-to-be-born son; while he's doing this, Kristi's sister Katie (Katie Featherston) comes along with a box of tapes from their grandma's house that she wants to store in the basement while she moves into a new home with her boyfriend Micah. This is a few months before the opening scene of PA2, which is a full year before the bulk of PA2, which is about one month before PA3. Got it all? Also, you need to bear in mind that Katie and Micah were the couple being haunted in the first movie, while Kristi and Daniel were in the second, and in both movies the women recalled the time in 1988 when Katie was 8 and Kristi was 5 when they were last plagued by this same demonic being.
So, naturally, Daniel happens to pull out a tape marked "September 1988" from the box of tapes, and... he watches it? All while still pointing the camera at the TV? For of course, the whole big thing of the Paranormal Activity films is that they're allegedly found footage, and we see the haunting and the terror as the people undergoing it have cameras here and there to capture the events.
At any rate, we cut to the 1988 tape, and we find that it was filmed by Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), a wedding videographer dating Julie (Lauren Bittner), the mother of eight-year-old Katie (Chloe Csengery) and five-year-old Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown). As the movie progresses, Dennis grows absolutely certain that Something is in the house, Something that Kristi insists on calling "Toby"; Julie categorically denies this is possible and refuses to watch the queer happenings on any of Dennis's tapes. Because, being a videographer, his gut instinct is to put up cameras in his and Julie's bedroom, and in the girls' and eventually putting a camera on an oscillating fan between the kitchen in living room, steadily rocking back and forth.
I believe, after having thought on it for a while, that there are three reasons why the first Paranormal Activity was a legitimately good film, instead of just a decent shocker: 1) it was novel; 2) it was plausible - unlike virtually every other film in the "found footage" genre, it always seemed to me quite reasonable that the characters would have produced the footage in the manner we see, and that it would be found and reviewed by other persons; 3) it was believable - the characters acted, more or less, like human beings might do under such circumstances. PA2 obviously lacked 1), had a weak but steady grasp on 2), and was adequate on 3), but also lacked simplicity - which is not, maybe, inherently a problem, but certainly larding the story up in half-assed mythology was probably not the right way to go. PA3 lacks all three, though it is considerably simpler than PA2, right up until the end where it becomes appallingly anxious to set up room for more chapters and starts puking up narrative wrinkles.
The first two movies certainly had their moments of "wait, why the hell are you still filming?" - PA3 consists of very little else, expecting us to believe that this professional wedding videographer makes a point of filming himself watching and cutting tapes, among its other contrivances; and the question of who, exactly, is meant to have found, reviewed, and edited this found footage is impossibly aggravating. Of course it's not really Dennis and Katie in 2005, however much the movie seems anxious to suggest that; but for that matter, why on earth do we need to have that framework narrative in the first place, except because there's no more elegant way of setting up the 1988 footage? And that, perhaps ought to have been the first sign that PA3 was conceptually broken.
Systemic structural dysfunction is something you can kind of overlook, though, if the goods are there - which is to say, I'm glad that PA1 is coherent and all, but I love it because it scares the holy bejeezus out of me. If PA3 was able to do at least that, it would be... not a good movie, not a good sequel. But watchable. It is not able to do that - and after comedy, nothing is as subjective as horror. I get that. Still, compared to the other films, PA3 takes ages and ages and ages before it even starts to crank up the slow burn; there is a bit of the uncanny sprinkled here and there, and the bit where Kristi has a nice chat with Toby at 1:30 in the morning is hair-raising, but for a solid 50 minutes, of a movie that clocks in at 81 including the short credits (though the longest in the franchise), this is nothing at all but the tepid domestic life of Julie and Dennis played at excruciating length, made all the worse because unlike Katie and Micah in the first movie, the central couple here doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense: they've been together just a few months, but they've already bought a place together and the girls completely accept Dennis as their new dad; and yet Julie doesn't trust him and hates the tapes. Whereas in the first movie, the tension over the video camera was actually worked into the plot, here it just serves to underline how faked all of this seems, and how little Julie or Dennis feels like an actual person.
In sum: characters who feel artificial are for the most part not haunted by a malevolent being that isn't scary even when it asserts itself, and the whole construction by which these people are put in front of us doesn't seem plausible in the first place. Congratulations on turning Paranormal Activity into yet another colossally horror picture money machine, boys.