Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sympathy for the Demon: 6 notes on Paranormal Activity 3

1) The first extraordinarily cheap Paranormal Activity (2007) generated a clever marketing phenomenon in its Blair Witch Project way. Next, a mechanized pool cleaner stole most of the scenes in the sequel. And now, in the third installment, Paranormal Activity 3 (directed by the makers of Catfish) shows signs of franchise fatigue. Hardly anyone showed up when I went to see it yesterday afternoon at the local Cineplex (although the movie did well enough at the box office). I found the repetition of the series' basic components increasingly wearisome--lots of surveillance shots of a suburban household at night portentously prefaced with titles like "Night 13: Sept. 10 1988."

2) As in PA and PA 2, much of the time in PA 3 you're watching nothing except empty tableaus of a comfortably bland suburban kitchen or bedroom. You wait for the next jump scare or irregularity such as a demon-possessed piece of furniture to shift about, a lamp to explode, or a family member to be thrown across the floor by occult forces. This time, the story goes back to 1988, when Katie of the first PA was a child living with her creepy younger sister Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown), her blithe mother Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her mother's boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) who works as a videographer of weddings. Like so many in the guys in the franchise, Dennis likes to take video feeds of the household at night in his attempt to understand the weird noises, mysterious incidents, and a strange shape he thought he saw in the falling dust after a small earthquake interrupted a sex tape. Like his predecessors who had an equally morbid fascination, Dennis persists in this videotaping long after most people would quit and get the hell out of there.

3) Oddly, hardly any of PA 3's trailer shows up in the finished movie, and the promotional stills are inaccurate. Is that a clever new marketing strategy--to be almost completely misleading?

4) Plot-wise, the new PA concerns Kristi's imaginary (read demon) friend named Toby whom she likes to consult with at night. Toby can sometimes get quite angry, so he locks Katie in the dark crawl space beside the two sisters' bedroom. Other times, he claws the goofy family friend Randy (Dustin Ingram) after playing a supposedly friendly game of "Bloody Mary" with Katie in the bathroom (The basic strategy behind "Bloody Mary": you turn out the light, say "Bloody Mary" three times, and then wait for something spooky to occur). We learn through Dennis' research that "kids are more susceptible to spiritual activity," but most people would already know this from young Danny's similar ability to "shine" in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Danny's "friend" is named Tony, and he likes to say things like "Danny isn't here, Mrs. Torrence" in a spooky voice. At any rate, in PA 3, Dennis reads up on demonology and learns how a visiting demon "feeds on your fear," but he seems more interested in recording something paranormal than in the safety of his family. His girlfriend Julie thinks that all of this fuss might go away if Dennis would just turn off the cameras.

5) Sadly, I have long since stopped being scared by this kind of thing (it's not like one can get caught up in the improvisatory dialogue. Some sample quotes: "Something weird is going on," "Toby pulled my hair!" "You're like those people who see the Virgin Mary in their toast," "I look so fat," "You're at fault. No more cameras," and so on). So, to pass the time, I fiddled with my right earlobe, noted the cinematic allusion to the original Halloween (1978) when Toby dons a sheet and sneaks up on the baby sitter, and tried to remain patient until things got extra freaky late in the movie. I found the conclusion entertaining, but it still leaves behind the question as to how or why Dennis could even think of lugging an old video camera around and pointing it loosely in the right direction in the midst of a vicious climactic demonic takeover? Perhaps saving his life or his girlfriend's or her children's life might be more important? To his credit, Dennis does invent one clever DIY panning shot by tying his camera to the base of an oscillating fan that tends to turn away just when all of the furniture rises up in the air in the kitchen.

6) The Paranormal Activity franchise juxtaposes the banal creature comforts of Americans with an invisible menace intent upon their destruction. As the static shots of furniture accumulate, I could increasingly understand Toby's position.

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