Film Review: Paranormal Activity 3

Defying the rule of diminishing returns that govern most horror franchises, both 'Paranormal Activity' sequels are as good as the original.

Paranormal Activity 3 opens with a brief prologue: Pregnant Kristi (Sprague Grayden) is painting the baby's room when Katie stops by with a box of old family movies on tape she wants to store in the basement. Not too long after, the house is burgled; the place is a wreck, but the only thing missing is, yes, the tapes.

Then it's back to 1988. Stay-at-home mom Julie (Lauren Bittner), her boyfriend, wedding videographer Dennis (Chris Smith), and Julie's daughters, six-year-old Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) and eight-year-old Katie (Chloe Csengery) have moved into a lovely home in suburban Carlsbad, Calif. It would be nice if Julie's mom, Grandma Lois (Hallie Foote), liked Dennis better and stopped pushing for more grandchildren, but she's generally supportive and lives just a short drive away. Dennis' business is thriving: He not only has a professional-quality editing suite in their home, but employs an assistant, the genial, goofy Randy (Dustin Ingram). The girls are adorable and parenthood hasn't squashed the friskiness that leads couples to do things like videotape themselves making love.

At least, they try to, until a minor earthquake ruins the mood and sends them scrambling to get the kids out of the shaking house. The weird part is that when Dennis takes a look at the tape, he spots something in the bedroom, a vaguely human shape outlined by falling plaster dust. Curious, Dennis sets up cameras in key parts of the house—the bedroom, the girls' room and the open-plan living and dining area, which he covers by rigging a camera to the base of an oscillating fan so it pans continuously back and forth—and is more than a little spooked to capture Kristi climbing out of bed at night to talk with her imaginary friend, Toby…and not always in a rainbows and unicorns kind of way.

Julie assures Dennis that all kids have imaginary friends and Toby (a name derived, all irony doubtless intended, from a Hebrew phrase meaning "the Lord is good") will be forgotten in a few weeks. How wrong she is becomes increasingly apparent as the movie goes on: You don't have to have seen either of the earlier films to know where this one is going.

And that's not inherently a bad thing. Horror sequels are like pranks: You can play the same one over and over again as long as it's good to begin with, you vary the set up and you defy expectations. Paranormal Activity 3 succeeds on all three counts. As in its predecessors, the characters behave like reasonable people: They're inquisitive in the face of oddities that fall within the realm of the explicable. The outline in the bedroom could be an optical illusion, all houses creak and knock, kids do have imaginary friends. They're slow to voice crazy-sounding suspicions, but react appropriately after coming face to face with evidence that something is seriously wrong…not that it does them any good.

Equal credit goes to screenwriter Landon (who also wrote Paranormal Activity 2); directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, whose earlier Catfish was a master class in blurring the line between fiction and documentary; and the cast, all of whom look convincingly like non-professionals but range from theater-veteran Foote to Csengery and Brown, who've managed to avoid the insufferably cute mannerisms of so many child actors.

Bottom line: If you're looking for a good Halloween scare that will play just as well after the last Christmas cookie has crumbled, Paranormal Activity 3 delivers, and does it without gore or "look at me!" special effects.