Horror movies tend to arrive in waves and phases according to what feeds the audience appetite for fear at the time -- exorcism, vampires, torture porn, zombies, Japanese surreal, ghost stories, haunted houses, serial killers et al. The Blair Witch Project helped usher in the is-it-real/found-footage genre in 1999. A decade later, along came the far superior Paranormal Activity. As box office legend now has it, Oren Peli shot the entire project in a week, in his house, for $11,000 or $15,000 dollars (depending on the account). Possibly $28 bucks. Then it was "discovered" by Spielberg, and the rest is history. Last year's prequel was even more successful, and this weekend's Paranormal 3 is poised to set more records.
The newest installment (directed by Catfish's Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman with Tod Williams) feels like Paranormal Activity 3S. The first movie introduced Katie's paranormal problems after she moved in with boyfriend Micah (who sets up his video camera in the bedroom to figure out the source of their home's mysterious night time noises). Arriving with no expectations (beyond those Paramount cooked up online in getting fans to "demand" release on their hometown screens), it was cleverly terrifying. (We might not all routinely be beset by werewolves and chainsaws, but who hasn't heard an unexplained noise in the kitchen?)
The second movie tells the story via security cameras over at Katie's sister, Kristi's house, in the days just before and after that, adding an imperiled dog and baby to the cast. The third movie "uncovers" VHS tapes from their childhood and the suburban 80s split-level where it all began.
The device this time out is that their Mom has a live-in boyfriend who's a wedding videographer determined to investigate the odd noises and activity that accompany the girls' not-so-imaginary friend Toby. There's a (de rigueur) babysitter, a sidekick coworker for the de facto dad, and assorted relatives. It opens the narrative up a bit (like moving a play from stage to screen). There's a nod to Poltergeist in a white-noise moment that lets the grown-ups sleep unaware; the little girls seem ably poised to fill the void left by Abigail Breslin's inevitable aging into adolescence; and a camera mounted DIY on an oscillating fan delivers a few suspenseful pans before growing a little tired.
While many movies give away their best material in the trailer, the opposite is true here -- the previews seem assembled from the cutting room floor of a film that never got made. Katie's 3-time "bloody mary" chant in the bathroom mirror resolves itself differently in the movie than the trailer. An expert who explains their supernatural problem (and gets banged onto the dining room table Exorcist-style for his trouble) in the trailer, never shows up in the movie. It's a problem, because viewers who are mentally ticking off plot points they're legitimately anticipating will find that the show's over before it's begun.
The first movie never bothered to explain any of the architecture behind the shenanigans -- it could've been aliens for all we knew -- and it was better for it. The second went down the demonic track, and the third suggests witches out of left field. Paranormal 4.0 will surely pick up where the first movie left off and we'll finally find out what becomes of Katie.
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Catfish review, by Raj Ranade