Note: The below is a review of a slightly unfinished Paranormal Activity 3, which made an appearance as the final Secret Screening of Fantastic Fest. The filmmakers introduced the screening with the caveat that the sound mix wasn't locked, though the edit is what people will see when the film opens on October 21st.
No reason to ignore the found footage elephant in the room, so let's get simple: If you liked the first two Paranormal Activity films, you will most certainly like Paranormal Activity 3. If you didn't, it doesn't alter the formula in ways significant enough to make you suddenly care about this franchise's gimmick. If you haven't seen any of the previous PA films, you're not going to be too confused if you make PA3 your franchise entry point, though you will miss out on the context of it all, which isn't much of a deal breaker considering the PA franchise is already about stretching your willingness to buy into all the spooky nonsense.
This go-around focuses on Katie (the gal from the first film) and Kristi (the gal from the second) once again, only this time they're little girls growing up in 1988. Their father is a wedding videographer, which means having a camera in his hand is second nature. This handycam addiction is, er, handy when the family's home starts having a few too many creaks and groans for new construction. Intrigued by what he might capture, the father then sets up cameras in the master bedroom and the loft area his two girls sleep in. Cue the all-too-familiar "Night 1" time stamp.
And thus continues the Paranormal Activity formula that Oren Peli perfected back in 2007. Well, it's assumed he perfected it, because new filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (the directing duo behind Catfish) make no attempt whatsoever to deviate from it. And what incentive do they have to? The films are already box office gold and even if we've seen the format twice already, it's still highly effective to stare at a "live" feed of a bedroom and play a game of Where's Waldo? trying to spot the signs of haunting. Is it an interesting technique? Not particularly, but it's hard to deny that it can turn your knuckles repeatedly white.
So, if the formula is the same, why should anyone bother returning to, or even getting excited for, Paranormal Activity 3? Well, for starters the 1988 setting does at least change the aesthetic slightly. It's also worth appreciating that Joost and Schulman don't bludgeon you with constant nostalgia bombs from the '80s, instead filling the house with various objects that children of the '80s will surely have found memories of. Plus, the use of kids as substantial characters does allow for a few new and creepy scenarios involving invisible friends, crawl spaces and games of Bloody Mary.
Beyond de-aging the characters, however, there are still more layers to peel off of this demon-haunted family's history. The thing that impressed most about PA2 was its ability to expand the demon mythos introduced in the first film without feeling like it was a stretch to connect the two, and it's exactly what impresses most about PA3. Returning screenwriter Christopher B. Landon does a commendable job of further defining the unique relationship these two girls have with the unseen thing that goes bump in the night, though unfortunately most of that comes in the film's last hurrah.
There's nothing wrong with leaving these revelations to the end (and the end is easily the best part of the film), but it does mean that the rest of the movie is filled with the same repetitive jump scares we've seen twice now. Granted, Joost and Schulman have a few cool tricks up their combined sleeve, but that's because they're clearly more concerned with giving you a jolt than they are defining characters or explaining why this father won't just show a shred of his mounting video evidence to his disbelieving wife, which would save him (and the audience) a whole lot of frustration.
Paranormal Activity 3 is the kind of horror movie that is content with being a simple spook house. It's not ambitious. It's not exceptionally well conceived. It's not all that great to look at it, either. But it does operate under the same silent contract that anyone walking into a haunted house on Halloween signs: if you're willing to pretend the guy in the grim reaper costume is the grim reaper, then it's perfectly happy to (eventually) put forth the effort to try and act the haunted house part.