Friday, October 21, 2011


The reason why Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity was so scary was the way the conceit – a man and a woman are concerned with strange things that go bump in the night, buy a camera and set it up to film while they sleep – played with the way we watch movies, specifically horror movies. With a long, locked-down shot as the crux of the film, it’s a horror movie that can’t rely on the standard technique of moving the camera to reveal a sudden blast of the unexpected or to give us supernatural point-of-view shots. Here, the deceptively simple low-tech effects of the scares more often than not happen creepily in front of a still camera while the characters are sleeping. A door swings. A sheet rustles. A light turns on, then off. My eyes scanned the frame, looking for, but kind of hoping not to find, clues to confirm the feeling of creeping dread. It’s all about the sound design, about what’s inside the frame and outside of it. The film builds to its scariest point and then drops immediately away into the end credits. Only the screams remained lodged in my brain, rattling around while I tried to sleep.

The sequel, from director Tod Williams, mistook more cameras (from a security system) and more editing for better scares. It followed the family of the woman’s sister as they experience some paranormal activity of their own in a story that turns out to be mostly prequel with a climax that lines up on the timeline with the first film’s. It was thinner and lighter, without the same lingering fright. The formula had already grown a bit too predictable. That’s the trick with any franchise. The filmmakers have to know that we think we know what we’re going to be shown, then tease us with the expected in order to startle with what new surprises they have in store. In Paranormal Activity 3, co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, with writer Christopher Landon, continue backing up the franchise’s story, this time to 1988, and there they have found just the right balance between predictability and novelty. They’ve made a scary movie, a quite possibly my favorite of the three.

Katie, from the first movie, and her sister Kristi, from the second, are little girls in 1988. Their stepfather Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) is a wedding videographer, so he has plenty of access to bulky VHS camcorders and tapes. It’s through these tapes that the story unfolds. (Luckily, the look of the film is slightly clearer than that format.) Like the others, the film starts with a happy family. The mother (Lauren Bittner) and the girls (Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown) alternately mug for the camera, are annoyed by its presence, and sometimes forget it’s even there, in the style of home videos everywhere. But once Dennis starts hearing strange noises, he decides to set up some cameras to monitor the house.

Directors Joost and Schulman co-directed the documentary Catfish from last year, a creepy/sad first-person account of a flirtatious situation escalating in an unexpected, though not entirely unsurprising direction. Here, they bring the same sense of a well-intentioned videographer slowly but surely getting in over his head. The cameras reveal startling sights. Dennis shows them to a coworker (Dustin Ingram). They debate what to do. Little Kristi is caught on tape getting up in the middle of the night to talk with her large, invisible imaginary friend, Toby. When confronted about it, she seems frightened. If she tells Toby’s secrets, she says, she “won’t be safe.”

You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the cameras record more and more strange sights, strange enough to convince Dennis to set up a few more cameras, which in turn record more strange sights. But what’s surprising, or at least gratifying, is the way Joost and Schulman play visually with the film’s form. We get three vantage points: first, a camera on a tripod in the master bedroom looking over the sleeping couple, reminiscent of the first film, and is reflected in their closet mirror; second, a camera in the girls’ room looking over their beds and toys but with the closet and the bathroom permanently, agonizingly out of the frame; third, a camera attached to an oscillating fan that slowly turns to give us alternating views into the kitchen and living room. We cut between these three predictable, repetitive shots, punctuated only by moments when someone moves the cameras for some reason.

This is all we need to see the story, all we need to constantly scan to find the scare. At night, in the girls’ room, we hear a closet door creak. In the master bedroom, we hear a thump in the hall. Downstairs, the camera slowly pans back and forth, so that a sudden appearance in one room inexorably is pulled out of sight leaving a tension in its place. Did I just see what I thought I saw? Like the first film but cleverly expanded and multiplied, the scares come from what we can and can’t see. It’s the scariness of hearing a strange noise in the middle of the night without the instant release of being able to leap up and investigate.

We are literally frozen with fear. This makes it all the more startling when suddenly, over as quickly as it began, something happens. A Lite-Brite turns itself on (the scariest Lite-Brite of all time). A door slams shut. A sheet moves across a room. A light falls. A piece of furniture flips over. Paranormal Activity 3 expertly teases the audience, withholding information, causing whispered speculations, until swiftly and forcefully, the fright becomes real and present within the frame. It’s fun to hear waves of fear ripple through the audience as different people see things in the still, quiet shots that startle them, and then abruptly we are all united in one big jolt. Just like the first film, it’s a movie made by people who know how to find a good visual gimmick and put it to work pulling an audience into a hushed and nervous sense of anxiety and fear.

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