Among the many lessons the Paranormal Activity movies have taken from The Blair Witch Project—the docu-horror concept, no-budget resourcefulness, the use of offscreen space, the escalating night-by-night scares, the naturalistic performances—the most important, in terms of longevity, was not to make Blair Witch 2. While each new Paranormal entry adds a few new effects and inches the mythology along, it’s a haunted-house franchise as fast-food chain: No matter what pimply-faced teenager is on the clock, the burgers all come out tasting the same. The pimply-faced teenagers this time around are Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, directors of the half-ingenious/half-dubious documentary Catfish, and they skillfully replicate the formula that was scary twice before and scary again this time around. They’ve added a few clever flourishes, too.
The first two Paranormal Activity movies referenced the past, when two sisters first encountered a hostile specter as children. Delving into a box full of VHS camcorder tapes, the third revisits that childhood in 1988, when “Toby,” an imaginary friend that isn’t so imaginary, begins tormenting the girls, their mother, and their stepfather in a California home. To extend the surveillance-cam concept, the stepfather (Christopher Nicholas Smith) just happens to be a wedding videographer, so when they start hearing disturbances in the house, he has multiple cameras at the ready. Though his wife (Lauren Bittner) remains skeptical, he sets up camcorders in their room and the girls’ room, and gets back some freaky footage in the morning.
Paranormal Activity 3 has one new technical wrinkle, and it’s brilliant: In addition to the cameras in the bedroom, Smith mounts a third to the base of a rotating electric fan, so it pans back and forth from the dining room to the kitchen and back again. Playing with action in and out of frame has been the series’ stock in trade—without an effects budget, the audience’s imagination will have to do—and Joost and Schulman exploit the rotating camera for all it’s worth, picking up disturbances that appear and disappear with each scan. The mythology behind the series feels all the more grafted-on this time around—and it presumably extends all the way back to the Lumière brothers—but the Paranormal Activity movies are built on fundamental horror concepts, and those fundamentals still hold.