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Paranormal Activity 3: Third Time's the Charm

Most sequels devote themselves to moving the story of a franchise forward; the Paranormal Activity movies seem to be going in reverse. As fans of the hit horror series may recall, the first film took place in 2007 and involved the haunting of a seemingly ordinary San Diego home shared by yuppie couple Katie (Katie Featherstone) and Micah (Micah Sloat). Paranormal Activity 2 turned the clock back roughly a year and introduced us to Katie's younger sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden), whose own house and family were bedeviled by the same poltergeist. And now Paranormal Activity 3 time travels two decades into the past back to 1988 when Katie and Kristi were little girls (played by Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown respectively) living in a picturesque Carlsbad, California split-level with their mother Julie (Lauren Bittner), her new boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) and -- you guessed it! -- the same violence-prone ghost. At the series' current rate of regression, by the time we get to Paranormal Activity 5, we'll be back in the silent film era and the characters will have to hand-crank their personal cameras Thomas Edison-style.

Working backwards is certainly a creative way of constructing a franchise, but it's hard to escape the feeling that the chief rationale behind Paranormal Activity's M.O. is that the masterminds running the series can't decide what should happen next, so instead they're focusing on filling in what's happened already. In other words, they're spinning their wheels, waiting for some kind of inspiration to strike that will show them the way forward. Fortunately for them, Paranormal Activity 3 turns out to be incredibly entertaining wheel-spinning. In fact, I'm going to come right out and say it: this is the best installment of the series so far and a vast improvement over the profoundly mediocre PA2. And if it lacks the original's novelty value and sheer sense of surprise, it makes up for it with creative filmmaking, likeable (for once) characters, a healthy dash of humor and a couple of great scares. It's the first Paranormal Activity that plays like a real feature film instead of a series of sometimes frightening moments surrounded by lots of filler.

PA3 is the debut narrative feature from the team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the directors behind last year's heavily hyped true-life (or was it...?) beware-the-Internet tale, Catfish. Maybe because this is their first studio assignment, they've put a lot of thought into coming up with new variations on the franchise's familiar first-person POV aesthetic. Their best innovation involves Danny -- a freelance wedding videographer who, much like Katie's doomed future lover, Micah, responds to the odd happenings in the house by recording everything 24/7 -- attaching one of his bulky VHS camcorders (in a nice period touch, he frequently mentions how often he has to buy blank tapes) to an oscillating fan, creating a jerry-rigged security camera that pans between the living room and the kitchen. In addition to being a nifty visual effect, this device allows the directors to stage some wonderfully creepy moments, most notably a scene involving a small figure draped in a white sheet that sneaks up on the girls' babysitter and then... well, you'll see. Another standout sequence finds Katie dragging Danny's assistant Randy (Dustin Ingram) into her bathroom to play a round of "Bloody Mary," which, naturally, encourages the poltergeist to come out of hiding. By the time the attack is over, Katie is in a state of shock and Randy has a long scratch on his stomach where something clawed at him.

But the film's most unnerving scene by far is the final set-piece. Having gotten fed up with their ghostly housemate, Julie and Danny do something that the characters in these kinds of movies never do -- they leave the freaking house! Looking for refuge, they bunk with Julie's mother, but that turns out to be a major miscalculation as Mommy Dearest belongs to a coven of witches that has designs on Katie and Kristi. Late that night, Danny wakes up and discovers that the girls have vanished from their bedroom and explores the dark, unfamiliar house, where unpleasant surprises seem to lurk around every corner. Part of the terror of this sequence stems from the fact that we're actually invested in these characters' survival, something that wasn't true of the previous movies. PA3's script, which is credited to Christopher Landon, would never be confused with Shakespeare (hell, it ain't even Sorkin), but the cast does a nice job turning their thinly-written roles into believable human beings. Even the young actresses are appealing, largely avoiding the cutesy precociousness that can make too many child performers insufferable to watch onscreen.

One of the downsides to prequelizing as opposed to sequelizing is that you run the risk of confusing or, even worse, contradicting what the other movies have established about the characters' futures. Based on the events that occur in here, for example, much of grown-up Katie's behavior in the first film now makes almost no logical sense. That's why it's almost best to treat PA3 as a standalone movie rather than overthinking how it fits into the franchise's evolving mythology. Eventually though, the Paranormal Activity brain trust is going to have to sit down and decide once and for all how to take the series back to the future. After all, you can only spend so much time living in the past.

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