It's rare for a horror film franchise to produce sequels that remain devoted to a group of characters with a consistent chronology. It's even rarer that the same franchise can tell its ongoing story in reverse chronological order, and that the franchise keeps the budget and production values of each of its films consistently small. Upon viewing Paranormal Activity 3, I can confirm that this "found footage" franchise, which began back in 2007, meets all of those attributes, which makes it a valuable rarity unto itself.
Click below to read my full review for PA3, which contains some mild spoilers. I really enjoyed this sequel, largely because it provides some great scares and it adds a great deal of new background information to Katie (Katie Featherston) and Kristi (Sprague Grayden), the sisters from the first two movies. If you prefer to stop reading to avoid spoilers of any kind, then I can only recommend this: If you're of the mindset that prequels are completely unnecessary and anti-climactic because the fates of the key characters have already been established, then PA3 is not for you. However, if you are genuinely interested in how it all began for Katie and Kristi, then this prequel is worth your time.
PA3 starts shortly before the events of PA2, when Katie drops off a large box of home videos for Kristi as she and her husband Dan (Brian Boland) are preparing a nursery for their soon-to-arrive son. The rest of the movie consists of edited footage from those VHS tapes, which show what happened during the month of September in 1988 when the sisters were children and living with their mom (Lauren Bittner) and her boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). Dennis earns his living by producing wedding videos and when odd things begin to happen in their home, he sets up cameras around the house to capture on tape what's behind the occurrences.
PA3 remains faithful to the standard set by its two predecessors. The special effects and shot compositions are simple, as is the story itself. The scares start small, and then build throughout the course of the story until its grim, vicious ending. To prop up the film's running time, the movie features a few scenes and plot devices that are reminiscent of other haunted house movies. There are some segments in PA3 that will have horror fans recalling other horror films such as Poltergeist, and the common horror plot device of a child who has an invisible, imaginary friend who isn't imaginary at all plays a major role in the story. These observations may make PA3 sound like a tired rehash of what has come before in both the PA series and in the horror movie genre in general, but this sequel is anything but. There's a lot of talent in this film both in front of and behind the camera, and it shows.
Katie and Kristi as adults ...
... And as children, played by Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown.
As I was watching PA3, I would occasionally wonder how the same scenes would look if they were shot like a non-found footage horror movie. There would be a more stylized use of lighting, different camera angles, and background music to build tension before certain events happen. The fact that PA3 is still a scary film in the absence of these filmmaking techniques shows how well the movie's production crew of understood both the strengths and weaknesses of the "found footage" subgenre of horror. Even in the absence of fast-moving "shaky cam" found footage, PA3 can still squeeze substantial scares and dread out of footage shot by cameras that barely move, if they move at all.
That said, you don't go into a movie such as this one without expecting to have many things left to your imagination. There are many shots where characters see and react to things that are just outside of the camera's view. This is why I would strongly recommend that viewers see PA and PA2 before seeing this sequel, since PA3 cunningly plays off of what you already know--and don't know--about Katie and Kristi and their family history to build tension. For example, there's a scene where one of the sisters is innocently playing dress-up in adult clothes. This would come across as sweet and adorable in any other movie, but it's absolutely bone-chilling in PA3 because of what has come before (or what is yet to come, given that this is a prequel). Curiously, the film takes place in 1988, which puts it in the middle of the "Satanic Ritual Abuse" (SRA) panic during the 80s and 90s that began under the claim of "recovered memories". (For as crazy as SRA accusations sound, that didn't keep innocent people from being put on trail and serving jail time in the real world.) Hidden abuse and buried memories both play major roles in PA3.
I should also stress that like its two preceding movies, the setting and the characters themselves are very mundane (at least on the surface). There are no exchanges of complicated, layered dialogue between characters or dramatic complications that the characters experience that allow them to change and grow as characters. (Actually, for what revelations there are in the movie, they happen too late for the characters to do anything about them.) This not only complements PA3's simple story structure and modest visual style, but it makes the increasingly violent supernatural events so much more jarring and vivid. Perhaps this is why found footage films have found a home in horror and not in any other genre--such intense mixings of the plain and ordinary with the unthinkable and horrific wouldn't have nearly the same impact anywhere else.
The camera reveals all ... or does it?
While PA3 is a solid prequel that's better paced than PA2 (read my review of that film here), it does have a few nagging quirks. For movie that's made from footage recorded on a slow speed on VHS tapes from the late 80s, the overall quality of the video images is much better than it should be. Even the visual glitches that were common on VHS tapes from that time, such as brief screen discolorations and occasional lines of static, are nowhere to be found. Furthermore, this is the only film in its series so far that doesn't have some sort of message thanking a law enforcement agency or relatives for allowing the filmmakers to use the footage. To follow the narrative logic of most found footage films, the "real" footage was assembled by a "real" documentary crew who got the footage after a "real" investigation into the strange events depicted on the footage and the people involved. If we're lucky, maybe PA4--which is scheduled for release in October of this year--will show us who these fictitiously real/really fictitious documentarians are and why they have been so devoted to tracking the fateful lives of the sisters Katie and Kristi.
PA3 is great sequel, and I recommend it to anyone who's a fan of the series or scary found footage films in general. The details that are revealed during this movie leave this franchise open for many more stories outside of Katie and Kristi and their family, so I'm curious to see what new kinds of found footage frights PA4 will have to offer later this year.