The bottom line on any horror picture is clear cut and simple: How many times does it raise the hair on the back of your neck? How often do you jump? And how much fretting do you do about where you kept that night light you put away years ago?
Paranormal Activity 3 manages a couple of hair-raising moments, a couple of legitimate jolts and some funny cheap ones. It was directed by the fellows who did that semi-legit documentary Catfish, so it's more cinematic. Jump cuts and the occasional almost-movielike arresting camera angle intrudes on the "found footage" this time — old VHS home movies from our pursued-by-demons sisters, Katie and Kristi, scenes from their childhood and their first brush with ghosts.
But this Paranormal doesn't tamper with the formula that worked in the first two films. It lacks the "money" moments that those films delivered and ends with a finale that is downright conventional. Paranormal reveals itself for what it has become: the Saw of found-video thrillers.
Katie (Katie Featherston) drops off some tapes with her sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden), and the sister's house is trashed by the mere presence of VHS in a non-digital home. We're taken back to the videotaped world of the girls' childhood: 1988, when sexy Mom (Lauren Bittner) was shacking up with Dennis, the videographer (Christopher Nicholas Smith). Young Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) has an imaginary friend. When Dennis spies a shape outlined in the dust of a video taken during an earthquake, he rigs the house with cameras and starts to see the things that are going bump in the day. And night.
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You know the drill: Lots of "What was that?" and "Weird"; footage of lights swinging without a breeze; shadows; and sheets rising on their own. A consumer tip here: A great deal of what's in the trailers to Paranormal 3 isn't in the movie. So if you were thinking of suing over Drive being falsely advertised, wait'll your lawyer sees this.
The novelty here is that children (and their baby sitter) are menaced. Co- directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman find a lot more laughs in this situation, tossing in Randy (Dustin Ingram) as the slacker assistant videographer. They do well with lulling us into complacency with the endless shots of nothing happening, or what looks like nothing. They have a harder time maintaining the point-of-view shots, with Dennis obsessively shooting everything. They even have to address the simple physics of that. Where would he find the time to watch those hours of video? And the dialogue is banal to the point of "too real to be entertaining."
But the kids, despite the absurdity of them sleeping through the night after having supernatural encounters, are on the money — right down to the sibling teasing. "Only babies have imaginary friends."
Don't think I'd be taunting the kid sister with that one, Katie. Not when the imaginary friend can shake the whole house if he's irked.