When it appeared in 2007, Paranormal Activity was arguably the best entry in the “found footage” horror sub-genre since that category was kickstarted by the immense success of The Blair Witch Project in 1999. A sort of Blair Witch for the YouTube era, Paranormal Activity capitalized on social media’s self-surveillance culture and applied it to things that go bump in the night, telling the story of a young couple who decided to investigate their home’s strange nocturnal occurrences by setting up a video camera while they slept. Made for a paltry $15,000, Paranormal Activity had to generate scares the old-fashioned way by letting the viewer’s imagination do most of the work, and it managed that task surprisingly well, creating an unsettling atmosphere of quiet dread. Offering only vague explanations for what was going on heightened the terror but also left the door open for sequels, and when its box office receipts gave Paramount the best return on investment in the studio’s history, Paranormal Activity was on its way to becoming a franchise.
Paranormal Activity 2 was a prequel which took place just before the events of its predecessor and focused on Kristi, the sister of the first film’s Katie. Following the birth of their first son, Kristi’s family began experiencing supernatural phenomena much like her sister soon would, and they documented it with security cameras installed throughout the house.
And so, as it is now clear that nasties from beyond are a problem that runs in the family, Paranormal Activity 3 goes all the way back to 1988 to explore the sisters’ childhood, captured this time on VHS by their stepfather, a wedding videographer.
The second film added backstory but otherwise used the same general narrative arc and bag of tricks as the first, and the third film does the same. But while both sequels bear the symptoms of a superfluous cash-grab, Paranormal Activity 3 is the one that stretches the series’ gimmicks past their breaking point, mainly because the core concept of constant self-documentation on video doesn’t easily extend to the analog era. Propelling the idea with a character who is a video professional is a nice try, at least until the film goes out of its way to poke holes in the plausibility of his home surveillance scheme, first by calling attention to the fact that the tapes have to be changed every six hours, and then by establishing that his business is not very lucrative (yet he can somehow spare three video cameras to document his haunted house). There are also plenty of scenes captured in first-person perspective, which are, on their face, far too mundane for anyone to bother casually recording, especially with a mammoth, shoulder-mounted camcorder from the late ’80s.
Speaking of the ’80s, it’s easy to forget that that’s when this is supposed to be taking place, because very little effort is made to evoke the time period. Aside from a carefully-placed Teddy Ruxpin doll, the set dressing, wardrobe, hairstyles, and even colloquialisms in dialogue all feel pretty current. But the most damning anachronism is the footage itself, which is captured in widescreen high definition.
To be sure, pointing out anachronisms is the province of nerds, and the general public is unlikely to notice or care about anything as seemingly trivial as inaccuracies in video resolution or interior decoration. But giving this story an aesthetic that properly corresponded to its chief narrative conceit (as Blair Witch did, incidentally) would have gone a long way toward giving the film what it most sorely lacked: verisimilitude. And that’s the biggest problem with Paranormal Activity 3: I just didn’t believe it for a second.