"Paranormal Activity 3" reliably spooky for the chilly fall season

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
85 min., rated R. 

In the past seven years, each season of the witch guaranteed a "Saw" movie. But no longer are blood splatter and innards ruling your October treats! Now, a different kind of horror franchise has taken its place, starting with the 2009 found-footage novelty "Paranormal Activity." It was a genuinely disquieting little movie engine that could and its 2010 sequel "Paranormal Activity 2" cleverly integrated itself as a prequel. Third time's the charm for "Paranormal Activity 3," which goes back to sisters Katie and Kristi when they were just little girls. First, as "connective tissue" setup, in 2005, Katie (Katie Featherston) stored boxes of videotapes from their grandmother Lois' house in the basement of younger sister Kristi's (Sprague Grayden) house as she's still awaiting the birth of her baby Hunter. The next year, when Kristi's house was ransacked, apparently it wasn't just the necklace Katie gave Kristi that was missing, but the videotapes as well. (After all, that is how filmmakers make sequels.) 

From what the tapes recorded in 1988, Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) were living with their mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) and her wedding videographer boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), in a suburban home in Santa Rosa, CA. One night while the couple attempts to make a sex tape, an earthquake strikes and the time-coded video camera picks up something strange involving dust falling from the ceiling. Baffled but intrigued when reviewing the footage, Dennis is then inspired by Kristi talking to her invisible friend, Toby. He's tall, as old as grandma, and likes to play at night. So Dennis rigs video cameras around the house—one in the girls' loft bedroom, another in the master bedroom, and a third on a fan that pans from the kitchen to the living room—in hopes of catching some paranormal phenomena. 

For those that unreasonably doubted the validity or felt betrayed for not getting a backwoods bloodbath out of the documentary "Catfish," directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman know what they're doing. They expertly use space and timing to continue the spooks which made the first two movies so sneakily startling. Watching every corner and space of that viewfinder still rattles your nerves from the fear of the unknown. A few cuts and fake-out scares (characters appearing out of nowhere or jumping out to scare the "director of photography") feel too manufactured for a this-is-really-happening, vérité exercise, but no worries, there are enough doozies to make you keep the lights on at night. A camera mounted on the base of an oscillating fan, panning like a fly on the wall, is ingeniously milked for eye-covering tension and nervous chuckles. The dread boils as we anxiously await what might appear when the camera pans left to right. In one instance, homage is paid to both "Halloween" and "The Amityville Horror" as the girls' babysitter gets snuck up on by something under a ghostly white sheet. Other frightful opportunities that hold their own indelible jolts involve Katie and Dennis' lanky colleague Randy (a funny Dustin Ingram) saying "Bloody Mary" three times to a bathroom mirror with the lights off; a literal hair-pulling incident during the day time; a "magic trick" in the kitchen; a closet door that won't stay shut; and a Teddy Ruxpin stuffed bear that could be Chucky's buddy. But it's the doom-laden climax set in Katie and Kristi's grandmother's Moorpark, CA house, all darkness and POV-shot suspense, that will cause a palpable anxiety for its audience. 

This being a prequel to the first two "Paranormal Activity" movies, the source of Katie and Kristi's haunting childhood is answered and it makes sense in retrospect, but questions still remain. As we learned in the last film, there was a fire and Kristi didn't speak for months, but it seems such memories were cut from the finished product. Also, ninety percent of what you see in the trailer won't be found in the actual film; those "Catfish" guys always have enigmatic marketing on their side. "3" may not provide as much narrative payoff as it does in the scare department, but again, it's a reliably spooky creepout for the Halloween season. Rather than watching graphic torture, you'll be tortured by your fear of the dark. If you're not afraid of the dark, you will be. 

Grade: B +