|*insert tasteless Polanski joke here*|
Cards on the table - I'm a fan of this series. Not this film, particularly, but as a whole trilogy, I can gloss over the poor points of this film and look at all three as a whole. Consider the first three Saw films, left solely on their own, without the additional parts 4-29. or however many there are now. With the addition of part 4, the first three films' stories are negated and make almost no sense. With only 1-3, it's a perfect, multi-faceted trilogy about several interesting themes. My hope is that the Paranormal Activity trilogy is left on its own and not given additional, needless sequels.
More after the cut--
I suppose the above might sound like praise, and the two stars I gave to the film might be confusing. Well, let's go ahead and clear that up now - most everything before the last twenty or so minutes of the film is useless. Bad acting, mostly, undermines the clever idea for the film. Here's a recap of what we know from the series so far.
There's a demon hellbent on ruining the lives of sisters Katie and Kristi. Why? Well, in Paranormal Activity 2, we're told. I think the directors of these films are insistent on one-upping the depression factor of the endings in each film. There's a cold-blooded, demon-possessed murder at the end of the first, several cold-blooded (and genuinely sad) demon-possessed murders at the end of the second, along with a trilogy-defying cliff-hanger that explains the first film. And here, there is an ending that trumps the first two, calling to mind The Last Exorcism and Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, in the best ways. It's an ending that got under my skin and made me upset. And proves, that if played in order, the story arc of these films rivals as one of the most depressing character pieces caught on camera. And given the brutality of this installment's story, and the cleverness that went into making it, it's a shame that the screenplay couldn't live up to its own expectations.
One thing I have to defend this film for is its collection of what several critics refer to as "Gotcha! moments" (I think Roger Ebert coined the phrase). Generally, it's a frowned-upon practice in horror movies - quickly scare the audience with a loud bang or something jumping out at a character. It's a cheap move and indicative of boring direction. But, here - consider: the only reason the demon in the film doesn't just go ahead and accomplish its goal with all its spiritual and demonic power is because it wants to terrorize the family, to feed on their fear and get stronger. What better way to do that then creep them out, and then quickly scare them with a loud bang or throwing something? It makes perfect sense to me.
In this film, we meet Kristi and Katie as little children, knowing already their unfortunate futures. They live with their mother Julie and her boyfriend Dennis, who has a severe bromance with his friend Randall. The film opens with an extended scene from part two, which sets up that this film is caught on video tape. What we don't know is what happens between the end of this film and the beginning of the second. Which I would gladly watch, but that's the only way I'd anticipate a sequel for these films. Or if there's one that explains Katie's fate more fully. So, if the producers are reading this - you have two options: explain the remainder of the childhood for Katie and Kristi, or tell us where Katie is. Be clever and find a way to do it.
Julie, in this film, doesn't seem so bothered by the weird happenings of the film until they start to effect her personally. Dennis is the inquisitive one, always asking about Kristi's "invisible friend" Toby. So much so that he sets up 24-hour video surveillance around the house, including one ingenious set-up - a camera set up on an oscillating fan, capturing (in a deliberately slow pace) all the action between the living room and the kitchen. The cleverness of this set piece is that it allows the tension to built between scary moments. It's a tech nod to the game the children play at the end of The Orphanage (you'll catch that, if you've seen it, in the scene with the babysitter) and beautifully done. The two shots involve excellent special effects without the obvious presence of special effects - the best things these films have going for them. A sheet covered figure stalking a babysitter, like a ghost, and the curious disappearance of furniture. Of course, the furniture returns, in the film's best moment.
What keeps this film from greatness is the acting. It's slickly made, directed, written, filmed and framed, but the performances - even from the kids - don't seem genuine. What kept me involved in the first Paranormal Activity were the flawless performances. And there were brilliant moments of acting in the second, though a far cry from what Katie Featherston pulled off in part one. Here, it's like they're rehearsed, which takes away from the fun-factor of watching these people go through these terrible moments for the first time. If there's any hint of rehearsal, how can we be expected to believe them when they "don't see it coming"? If audiences can keep pretending they haven't seen things like this before, the actors should be able to, as well.