Wednesday, 2 November 2011

'Paranormal Activity 3' review:

For anybody wondering why a film coming to the end of its theatrical run is at the top of this blog: I'm just catching up on some of the current releases. In lieu of anything else to do/because it was Halloween, I chose to see this. Rest assured this week's biggest new films have been reviewed further down, in the form of 'The Adventures of Tintin' and 'The Ides of March'.

With some major exceptions - like Kubrick's 'The Shining' and Carpenter's 'The Thing' - I'm not a big fan of traditional horror movies. This represents a major gap in my cinema knowledge, leaving me with many seminal movies as yet unseen. As a result I'm often left shamefaced when people assume I've seen, for instance, 'The Exorcist' or 'Night of the Living Dead'. It's a rare event that I even see a horror movie in fact and I suspect fewer than 5 of the around 250 films I've reviewed since beginning this blog have been unambiguously of the genre, even though it's perhaps the most enduring and commercially successful in the business. I am increasingly aware of the need to bridge this cultural gap, but horror was never my passion growing up like it was for many of my peers.

I begin this review of 'Paranormal Activity 3' with such a strained admission of ignorance because I'm self-consciously out of my depth and didn't want to give any impression to the contrary. I also thought it might explain why I'm much less interested in the actual business of what went on in the film - the scares and specific additions to the series' growing mythology - than I am of who made it and how. Whilst I saw the original 2007 lo-fi phenomenon 'Paranormal Activity' on DVD, I never sought out its first (by most accounts rubbish) sequel. Yet I went to see this third entry because of two names: Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, directors of the controversial "documentary" 'Catfish'.

I write the word sceptically because much of the coverage surrounding 'Catfish' - which ostensibly followed a man's online romance to a very creepy conclusion - focussed on whether or not it had been staged. Was it actually just a very cleverly made thriller, rather than a genuine insight into the pitfalls of love in the digital age? I don't know, though it certainly felt real to me to the point where the question seemed redundant. With that debut as their calling card, the duo make an inspired choice to direct a fake "found footage" movie on a low budget. So when I learned they had directed this latest, cash-in sequel (actually a prequel) it elevated my interest all the way from "none whatsoever" to "desperate to see it".

I was very impressed by what I saw. For one thing, as with the previous films in the series, the action is mostly staged within the confines of (despite its 80s setting) one ultra-modern American suburban home and the directors use this space brilliantly. Very quickly we understand the layout of the house, meaning that when a spooky images flickers from one end of a hall to the other we understand where it is headed, and when people react to events happening off-camera, we know exactly where they are looking. The house itself is airy and open plan, which contributes both to the feeling of being watched by an omnipresent entity and of there being nowhere to hide.

Furthermore, the cine-literate directors geek out spectacularly throughout the movie. The man obsessed with taping the events this time around, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), is an amateur filmmaker who not only spends his time arguing with a friend about the logic of the title of 'Back to the Future' whilst sitting at an editing suite, but actually discusses the mechanics of shooting the house - and by extension the movie itself. He talks at length about wide-angle lenses and experimenting with different placements to capture as much of the space as possible with one camera.

He creatively uses mirrors to cover multiple angles within each single shot and - in the film's best moment of invention - turns an oscillating fan into a slowly panning camera tripod. Not only is this a neat piece of guerilla filmmaking, but the set-up plays directly into the scares as the camera tracks back and forth from the kitchen to the living room tantalising and frustrating us in equal measure with the promise of the inevitable reveal. Add to this some unsettling in-camera effects and 'Paranormal Activity 3' definitely makes the most of its small production budget (ignoring the hundreds of millions presumably spent on marketing).

Like the original film, the horror here is born directly from the act of filmmaking. The viewer is as ever complicit in enraging the demon, which we know is prone to acting up whenever people try to capture it on film. Our act of voyeurism seems to put us at risk for the duration of our time in the theatre and Dennis can't stop filming for the same reason we don't stop watching: we are psychically compelled to want to see our tormentor even as instinct tells us to turn and run away very quickly. This strange urge to explore the origin of an unexplained noise or to look inside the dark cupboard is what puts us in danger. It's a collective neurosis that's almost biblical in proportion: just as Adam was cast from the garden Eden for sating his intellectual curiosity, so must we pay for sticking our noses where they don't belong.

Also interesting is the fact that the two lead characters spend the first half of the film trying to scare each other, and most of the jumpy moments relate to this rather than anything supernatural. This is a clever twist as it gives you the satisfaction of a quick jump scare, whilst still withholding the lurking monster itself. And your knowledge that a genuine spooky force is present also makes you anxious, as those who play spooky tricks leave themselves open to very real paranormal attack in the process. As they laugh we suspect the worst is on its way. Even I, with my aforementioned lack of horror knowledge, can see many of the clichés at work here - including the dominant presence of two spooky girls - but Schulman and Joost inject much more invention into this theoretically moribund franchise than there was any right to expect.

'Paranormal Activity 3' is on general release in the UK where it is rated '15' by the BBFC.

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