The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield might have paved the way for the faux documentary style of film making, but the Paranormal Activity trilogy has exploded amongst horror fans and established itself as a firm franchise. Like The Blair Witch Project, PA3 draws on the concept of ‘found footage’ after the events have taken place. For fans of the first and second instalments, the third (and
presumably not final) takes us back to the origin of the supernatural presence in 1988 that stalks the Rey sisters, Katie and Kristi.
I’m not quite sure what the obsession is with certain tried and tested horror movie staples; the adorable cherubic squabbling sisters, kids ‘drawing their feelings’ (always overlooked by the otherwise coddling parents – Insidious, The Ring, Orphan anyone? – all I’m getting from this is that art cannot lie…someone oughta tell that to the writers of PA3) and the perilous concept of the imaginary friend (remember Regan’s trusted confident Captain Howdy in The Exorcist?). Nonetheless, these conventions seem to evoke something uneasy in audiences enough for them to be reused and relied upon…provoking reactions every time and PA knows this and brandishes them at every opportunity. All I know is that the ‘creepy kids’ angle is possibly the best marketing strategy for birth control ever.
PA3 tells the story of Kristi’s imaginary friend ‘Toby’ who she seems to be on relatively friendly terms with. Toby makes frequent contact with Kristi, who seems receptive to him, and the two share secrets (he also attends her tea parties). Her mother Julie thinks that Toby is harmless childhood nonsense and sister Katie finds it childish and worthy of ridicule. Only step father Dennis thinks that there is something ominous and sinister to this Toby character, particularly as bizarre instances appear to
have begun occurring around the house ever since Kristi acquired her new chum. Naturally, in true PA style, Dennis decides to set up his video camera and begin filming the day to day occurrences
in the house. Gradually, the footage builds, and creepy occurrences become more unexpected and chilling. Toby’s intentions change from being maliciously playful to having a far more insidious, focused intent. He finally bribes Kristi to fulfil his bidding and in doing so, the film takes a darker, reflationary turn, as past family secrets come to light, but only partially.
The territory is familiar and feels formulaic by now. Certain scenes are direct repetitions from the earlier films. In many ways, PA is allowed to do this to some extent because it establishes the
demons presence, habits and hallmarks. We never truly understand who or what ‘Toby’ is or what his motivations and intentions are. PA3 leads us to some pretty insightful leads and we can certainly
grasp at some fanciful conclusions by piecing together the hints and clues from the earlier films. Nonetheless the answer is never explicitly spelled out for us, and so the character of ‘Toby’ remains an unexplainable, demonic presence. None of the secrets are fully divulged which makes PA3 ambiguous and also mildly frustrating for those that were hoping for a neat and tidy ending.
The movies are thoughtfully casted and the actors reactions feel genuine and authentic, particularly those of Kristie and Katie who perfectly capture the curiosity, naivety and terror of childhood. They are able to suspend their disbelief to some extent because of the power of their magical thinking. The parents themselves, Julie and Dennis are very likeable and glamorous although they make some questionable choices i.e. allowing the girls to camp out in tents despite having concerns about the safety of their home. The father figures in PA movies always appear to draw the short stick so don’t get too attached to poor Dennis.
Fitting with PA style, there is always an ‘excuse’ to have the camera around; there is the contrived attempt to make a homemade porn vid (which had me rolling my eyes), filming the girls room to keep a log of the unexplained activity and recording conversations with the sisters in an attempt to discover what is happening, but there are some instances when the recording seems unnatural, for instance when Dennis is editing his footage. Nonetheless, it does feel as if we have stumbled into private family footage. Although the initial premise of the movies invited us to believe that this could potentially
have happened – it becomes harder and harder to stretch your sense of disbelief to accommodate the spiralling storyline and accept that all of these different families just so happened to videotape all of their experiences. The layout of the house is very open, enabling shocks to emerge from all angles and the camera is now positioned on a rotating fan which only adds to our sense of suspense and anticipation.
A huge criticism has been that many of the scenes included in the trailer are not present in the film itself and this is true. PA3 is guilty of false advertisement, promising chills and thrills that do not emerge from the expected places; instead we get an ironic take on a babysitter’s bedtime story, and a freaky ‘bloody Mary’ mirror scene. As such, the trailer isn’t really an accurate representation of what you’re going to ‘get’. There is nothing particularly groundbreaking about this film but diehard fans will be happy to learn more of the back-story and enjoy swapping theories about what’s really going on. These films certainly make you leap out of your skin when viewed on the big screen but I think they are more effective when watched in the ‘comfort’ of your own home, where they take on an eerie, immediate significance (it would also have saved me the cost of a £9 ticket).
The audience reactions were varied; I was sat low down in my chair, cowering behind my cardigan with expectation, but one of my friends was ‘bored’ and ‘over it’ and the other excited. Two movie goers claimed they felt cheated by the ending and one decided that the film clarified that women were essentially ‘batshit crazy’. All I’ll say is, don’t be surprised when you see the trailer for PA4, as this is a cash cow that, like the Nightmare on Elm Street or the Halloween movies is set to run and run, and potentially, get sillier and sillier.