This is one of the few times you’ll ever hear me say that I actually prefer a sequel (or in this case, a prequel) to the original film on which it’s based. While I do enjoy the first Paranormal Activity (2009) – in which a woman and her boyfriend document the activities of a malevolent poltergeist in their home – I have a few issues with it. For one thing, neither of the characters is particularly likable. Katie’s boyfriend Micah is an insufferable jerk who insists on solving the problem with the demon by himself, and all he does is provoke the spirit into escalating its assault. Despite the fact that he’s clearly in over his head, he refuses help from anyone who’s actually experienced such phenomena before (including a psychic and a demonologist), dismissing them as crazy. He also belittles Katie’s fears and betrays her trust (like when he tries to communicate with the demon through a Ouija board, despite having promised Katie that he wouldn’t). Even worse, Katie accepts Micah’s behavior for the most part and just allows him to treat her like she’s his property.
I’ll admit that when I first saw Paranormal Activity when it was initially released, it made me jump quite a few times. But upon subsequent re-viewings, I’ve found myself unable to “get into the mood” of the film; I just become too angry at the characters. Please note that the film takes place in 2007. Perhaps I lack perspective, but it seems to me that in this day and age, even Richard Dawkins himself would probably seek an exorcist or a witch doctor if he was confronted with clear scientific evidence of a demonic infestation in his home. Considering all the crazy shit these characters experience in the film, there’s just no believable reason for Micah to react the way he does. (Besides, if he just put some iron around the house, drew a few donkey sigils in red ink on the walls and offered a nice big salad to Seth-Typhon, the problem would be solved.) And considering the advances in feminism we’ve had here in the West since the 1950s (despite the fact that there’s still plenty of room for improvement), Katie’s reaction to Micah’s manipulations are even less believable. I find myself arguing with both of these knuckleheads more than empathizing with them, which has led me to conclude that Paranormal Activity isn’t nearly so good as I thought it was back in 2009.
Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) is a little bit better, but only a little. Most of the characters are more likable (and those who aren’t become more likable toward the end), and it was refreshing to have a “sequel” that actually takes place at the same time as the original. Nevertheless, the story structure is a little confusing (it makes more sense with multiple viewings), it takes the characters too long to look at any of their captured video footage, and the ending is rather anti-climactic. At the very least, I find it easier to accept how the characters behave in that one. At least there’s a maid who tries to resolve the demonic infestation with her folk traditions, and at least when she’s prevented from doing so by the dad, it’s for a pretty believable reason (i.e., he’s afraid of witchcraft).
The poster for Paranormal Activity 3
But Paranormal Activity 3 (2011), in my opinion at least, makes up for what its predecessors lack. For one thing, it has the most likable characters in the entire franchise. We have Dennis, his girlfriend Julie, and Julie’s two daughters, Katie and Kristi (who are younger versions of the adult female leads from the previous films). Dennis and Julie aren’t married, but Dennis does a good job of being the best stepdad Katie and Kristi could possibly hope for. The girls playing Katie and Kristi are also very convincing in their roles, considering their ages. (Kristi is especially cute as a button.) All in all, I love these characters; they actually seem like a family, and it’s much easier for me to invest myself in their safety and well-being.
For another thing, this prequel takes place in the 1980s, which helps to make the characters and their reactions more believable. Back in the 1980s, there was a popular reaction against the fascination with occultism that had run rampant in the 1960s and 1970s. This culminated in the infamous “Satanic Panic”, wherein numerous religious fanatics and law enforcement personnel became convinced that an international conspiracy of Satanists was out to molest and murder as many children as possible. (The FBI investigated this claim in the early 1990s and concluded that there is simply no evidence to support the idea of SRA or “satanic ritual abuse”; but of course, religious fanatics continue to believe this is just what the Satanists want the FBI to say.) So it’s much more believable to me that a family in the 1980s would not want to seek help from anyone involved in the occult, given that they probably wouldn’t trust such people around their children anyway.
(I also appreciate the fact that when the supernatural events of this film are met with skepticism, the normal cinematic gender roles are reversed in this regard. Usually it’s the women who are quick to believe in ghosts and the men who refuse to believe; but here it’s Dennis who puts all the dots together first, while Julie stubbornly refuses to accept what’s happening.)
Now Paranormal Activity 3 is still primarily a “jump scare” movie, which means it’s nowhere near as disturbing as flicks like The Thing (1982) or Miracle Mile (1988). It’s not looking to change the way you think about the world or the human condition; it’s just trying to make you throw your popcorn in the air. But since the characters, the setting and the plot are all more authentic than those in either of its predecessors, this movie manages to avoid pissing me off to the extent that I can’t suspend my disbelief. And with that in mind, I have to say that the “jump scares” in this flick are actually the best I’ve ever seen in a film of this sort. (One scene in particular – I won’t describe it, but I will say it involves a babysitter – permanently etched itself into my brain and still gives me the shivers whenever I think about it.) It’s amazing to think how effective a simple trick (e.g., throwing a chair at the camera) can be when the audience is given sufficient reason to empathize with the characters. Having a monster randomly jump out and decapitate someone you care about is always going to work better than having that same monster jump out and decapitate a complete asshole.
I must admit that this movie stayed with me for a while, and that it took me a while to stop being scared by it. My wife and I saw it at the theater when it was released around Halloween 2011, and we had just moved into our house at the time. We’d only been living there for less than a week, and I just wasn’t used to all the weird noises this place makes when it’s settling. This was exasperated by the fact that even before seeing the film, I had a couple of spooky experiences while we were still moving into the house. Seeing Paranormal Activity 3 made it even harder for me to sleep comfortably at night for a while. While it’s terribly simple, it’s also incredibly effective. If you haven’t seen any of the Paranormal Activity films but would like to give them a try, I highly recommend seeing this one first. (I also recommend avoiding the fourth, fifth and any subsequent films in the series like they have genital warts.)
A spooky promo shot for the film