I’m writing this at 5 a.m. after catching a late-night screening of Paranormal Activity 3, latest in the series of atmospheric horror films about ghosts in California tract houses. All is serene and still down here in Tribeca; my wife Mary sleeps in the next room. I jump when CRACK! goes the table that holds my TV set. It shouldn’t do that; it’s metal, not wood. I feel another sudden movement: a shiver down my spine. I’m dead serious; I mean, serious. Was Mary walking around? I’d better go into the bedroom and check.
She’s not there.
Now here’s an early scene from PA3, set in Sep. 1988, just after Dennis (Christopher Nicolas Smith) has moved into the three-story Carlsbad house he shares with his girl friend Julie (Lauren Bittner) and her two daughters: Katie (Chloe Csengery), about nine, and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown), about six. One night, the girls in bed upstairs, Dennis suggests to Julie that he film their lovemaking, and she agrees. He sets up the camera, but before they get far, a framed picture falls off the wall. Turns out it’s a minor earthquake, and the couple rush out of the bedroom to get the kids. As the ignored camera cranks away, a fine silt falls from the cracked ceiling, adhering to the humanoid shape of — something.
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One of the salutary effects of the Paranormal series, as reviewer Drew McWeeney has noted, is that it killed off the Saw films. The torture-porn movies had soon exhausted the original saga’s ingenuity, but the first five installments, produced for relative peanuts, had each earned well over $100 million worldwide. It happened that Saw VI hit theaters about the same time in 2009 as Paranormal Activity, and the ghost movie creamed the thumbscrew film. Saw VI pulled in a modest $68 million around the globe, and managed just one more episode before expiring (for now), while PA, which writer-director Oren Peli shot in a week on a $15,000 budget, grossed $108 million in North America and another $85 million abroad — a ridiculous return of $13,000 for every dollar originally invested. Semi-sequels ensued, and PA is now the favorite haunted movie house to visit just before Halloween.
Aside from the money, PA was welcome for both its mood and its method. The film yanked horror out of the Saw abattoir and sent it back home where it belongs, and where it is more likely to occur. Not everyone has been kidnapped by an inventive psychopath with dismemberment in mind. But most people have a bedroom, and someone they love nearby, and an apprehension of inexplicable shadows, breezes and sounds. PA plundered the terror implicit in familiar objects, surroundings and people — in the heard but unseen, the seen but unexpected. The young couple Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (the actors using their real names) try to laugh off their worries about doors that mysteriously open or specters in the night, but soon they’re scared less of what is than what might be out there or inside them. The monster you fear is worse than the monster you see.
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As for the method, it was ostensibly nothing new. The 463rd found-footage horror movie since The Blair Witch Project in 1999, PA had its moments of hand-held, faux-jerky footage; but great swatches of it showed the action from a stationary position, purportedly the resting place for a video camera that Micah had set up in his and Katie’s bedroom to document the eerie manifestations. Every tyro director at film school must be handed this assignment: create suspense with the most meager means — a tiny budget, a few characters and, please, no gore. Peli pressed the economy to minimalist extremes, as if he were making an old avant-garde short or a modern European angstathon. And yet it connected viscerally with the masses. The point-of-view restriction, no less than the foreboding that something very wrong would soon occur, turned the most casual viewer into an intense inspector of each inch of every frame; audiences scanned the shots for hints of dread, like the students of the Zapruder film.
Peli has only produced the more recent films, leaving PA2 to director Tod Williams and cowriter Christopher B. Landon (son of the late actor Michael), and PA3 to writer Landon and the directing team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Last year those two hatched Catfish, the documentary — better yet, docuwhatary? — focusing on the Facebook flirtation of Schulman’s brother Nev with some women from an Upper Peninsula Michigan family. Or, to put it in Paranormal terms, it was about a young girl who enters into a kinda creepy communication with an unseen friend. Maybe the movie was factual, maybe quite a bit fictional, but Joost and Schulman had proved they could find emotional acuity in the characters and crackling tension in real-life (or real-like) events. They’re fine choices to extend the franchise.
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Subsequent episodes have filled out the PA mythology; but if you missed the first two movies, and don’t know what the devil two sisters are capable of, just as well. PA3 makes sense on its own, while running some macabre variations on the characters and the visual strategy. In the new house, young Kristi has found an invisible friend named Toby, whom she wakes at night to converse with. When Mom has a question about Toby, Kristi replies, “Why don’t you ask him? He’s right here.” The little girl sometimes quarrels with her BFF, who’s a bit of a prankster — short-sheeting, hair-pulling, furniture removal — but she remains faithful. Visiting Grandma (Hallie Foote, the daughter of playwright Horton Foote), Kristi gets dressed in a bridal veil. “Who’s the lucky guy?” Mom asks, and the girl matter-of-factly replies, “Toby.”
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Except for a few scenes employing a hand-held camera, all the action is shown from three (ostensibly VHS) machines: one in Dennis and Julie’s bedroom, one in the attic with the kids and a third — the beauty part — attached to the base of an oscillating fan on the ground floor, panning left to the foyer and right to the kitchen. Rotating like the head of a fan at a funereally slow tennis game, the camera plays tricks that kept last night’s audience in an ecstasy of masochism. (“I can’t watch! I must watch!”) In a great scene, we pan to the kitchen one time as Julie gets up from the table. Pan back, and to the right again: the kitchen table and chairs have vanished! Third time’s the alarm: when the camera returns to the kitchen, Julie screams as the table and chairs drop from the ceiling and crash around her.
The filmmakers throw in a few cheesy scares: mom in a monster mask, a baby sitter jumping in front of a camera. But the rest is pretty freaking cool. The old horror trope of a threatening figure under a sheet — a killingly funny gag from John Carpenter’s original Halloween — gets a neat twist here. (PA3 also channels Forbidden Planet, The Shining, Poltergeist and, in its panning surveillance camera, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation; you could add dozens more.) The evident absurdity in the first film of Micah’s lugging a camera everywhere, even when he’s trying to save Katie’s life or running for his own, is finessed here by making Dennis a videographer who shoots weddings, editing the footage in the basement of the house. And the nagging question that rumbles through every haunted-house movie — why don’t they just leave? — gets a long workout before being finally, pleasingly, shudderingly resolved. (Hint: They do move, and it gets worse.)
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Last night’s crowd ate it all up — and, in some of the terrifying scenes, nearly threw it all up too. The PA experience is wonderfully instructive, communal fun in a movie house, where if you’re not jolted by what’s on screen then you will be by the sudden screams of your neighbors. But the films have to be even scarier when watched on video, alone or with your beloved, late at night, in a house whose floorboards never creaked, till right NOW. And don’t worry, you’ll survive the tsouris. It’s morning in Tribeca now, and I’m still here.
Say, where’s Mary?