- One hand-held camera. (Shake well.)
- An ominous, mostly unseen supernatural force making largely off-camera mischief.
- Lots of improvised bickering.
- No stars, no music, nothing to suggest that any money was spent on anything.
- An abruptly violent downer ending.
Blend for approximately 90 minutes, and presto! You’ve whipped up your very own POV horror flick!
This original recipe comes courtesy of a little movie named The Blair Witch Project (1999), still among the most profitable (relative to its budget) movies ever made, and one that spawned a legion of “found footage” mockumentaries. Then in 2009, writer-director Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity gave the genre a fresh jolt of energy by ingeniously cross-pollinating with Poltergeist, and it was such a sleeper smash that it’s already on its second sequel in as many years. So how does PA3 stack up against its dear old grandpappy? Get ready for a devil of a Smackdown!
The original Paranormal Activity centered on Katie and Micah, a genial couple whose playful banter grows increasingly antagonistic as the nightly, mysterious disturbances in their home grow increasingly sinister. PA2 takes place largely during the months prior to the events of the original, moving the action to the home of Katie’s sister Kristi across town. Katie and Micah show up intermittently, and eventually, the plots of the two films intersect, and that’s pretty much all I can say without lurching into spoiler territory.
But PA3, after a brief prologue that enables cameos by the previous films’ stars, is a genuine prequel, taking us back 16 years to the sisters’ childhoods, when things were first starting to get weird for them. On top of the usual object-moving, door-slamming and noise-making, young Kristi (the amazing Jessica Tyler Brown) is conversing with her “imaginary friend” Toby with a commitment not seen since Danny Torrance and his chatty index finger. And on top of that, Grandma is getting kind of creepy. Like Rosemary’s Baby creepy.
As with its predecessors, all the footage we’re watching has been filmed by the characters, either by their hand-held camcorders or the stationary security cameras that, in each movie, the dominant male figure has installed around the house, much to the discomfort of his partner. PA3 brings the added innovation of a security camera that repeatedly pans the room by having its protagonist, an amateur wedding photographer, cleverly attach one of his cameras to a disassembled rotating fan. It’s a nice touch, used to great, creepy effect.
You do not need to have seen either of the previous two PA‘s to follow this one, but the three are all connected in such a way that skipping one of them feels like looking at an incomplete painting. For this third installment, the directing reins were taken by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, inspired choices for a fictional feature that’s supposed to look like a documentary, their having previously made Catfish (2010), a supposed documentary that felt like, and quite probably was, a fictional feature.
The Defending Champion
In Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project, grungy twenty-somethings Heather, Mike and Josh set off into a labyrinthine Maryland forest to make a documentary about the legend of the “Blair Witch” who is rumored to haunt it. Thanks to Heather’s inept navigation skills and Mike’s frustration, they get hopelessly lost. If that isn’t bad enough, they find ominous-looking formations of stones and sticks outside their tent each night. And things go really wrong from there.
Without giving too much away, there’s not a single physically violent moment on screen in the entire movie, which frustrated many moviegoers almost as much as the constant hand-held camera-swishing that actually caused seasickness for some. Still others were fed up by the film’s deliberate pace (it’s over an hour into this 81-minute movie before it even attempts any conventional scares), its abrupt and ambiguous ending, and the feeling that it fell short of its hype (its elaborate, intriguing website made it arguably the first film to build a viral buzz). But despite many detractors, the movie was a genuine sensation, proving beyond argument that horror doesn’t need stars, much plot, clever dialogue, special effects, gore or even “gotcha” moments; all it really needs is that intangible ability to get under the skin, and Blair Witch had it in spades.
Fans of either of the first two Paranormals probably won’t be disappointed by Number Three, provided they’re not expecting it to top its predecessors. Other than the rotating camera bit, it doesn’t really stray from the formula, nor does its backstory provide any shocking revelations. What it mainly does is confirm the suspicions expressed in the second one about why all this is happening and what this evil spirit wants. I suspect most people who see this movie don’t care, as long as it delivers the scares, and this one delivers a decent handful. The snarky, overly chatty audience I saw it with reacted with genuine fright on several occasions, and one jolt in particular was so perfectly rendered that it actually evoked applause.
But there’s no escaping that there’s simply nothing particularly new here. Like Blair Witch, the main draw of the original PA was its what-happens-next? tension. Horror films generally thrive on the sensation that anything can happen at any given moment, but with a sequel, even a good sequel, you usually have a pretty good idea of what to expect, so unless it takes a completely different tack (such as the sublime Evil Dead 2, essentially a Warner Brothers cartoon version of the original), it’s a case of diminishing returns. PA3 is no exception. It’s a perfectly well-made fright-fest, but much like the Scream sequels, it’s essentially just more of the same, so your reaction can be easily predicted by how much more of that same you’re up for.
The Blair Witch Project, being an original, broke several molds at once, as well as being, way back when, a truly bone-chilling experience. I was initially as wowed as anyone by it – particularly its unsettling final images. But as much as I liked and admired it, I’d seen no need to revisit it all these years, figuring that minus the element of suspense about where it was all leading, its power would be diminished.
I’m pleased to report that it holds up surprisingly well on second viewing. Yes, the blood-curdling effect of its final minutes is all but gone, but the movie still manages to work as a humans vs. nature cautionary tale. It masterfully depicts the gradual recognition and horror of being lost, and the audience feels it right along with the characters. Because of the innovative way the movie was made, with the actors in the woods having no idea what the filmmakers were going to throw at them next and simply reacting in character to it, the film has a verisimilitude that even the largely improvised PA movies can’t approach.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to watch The Blair Witch Project for the first time now, 12 years after its release, in the wake of so many homages, imitations and parodies. My guess is that it would play for a newbie in somewhat the way Psycho would, as simply incomparable to its initial impact, but still fully capable of being enjoyed and appreciated for its superb craftsmanship, importance and influence. Paranormal Activity 3, on the other hand, has about as many good “gotcha” moments as a Sarah Palin interview, but will slide out of memory by the time you’ve gotten home, particularly if you’ve already seen either of the previous films in the series.
Or to put it another way: PA3 is recommended for fans of its franchise; our winner, The Blair Witch Project, is essential viewing for fans of its genre. And the fact is that without it, there’d probably be no PA movies at all, making this Smackdown an easy decision.