Paranormal Activity 3

Sisters Katie (Katie Featherstone) and Kristi (Sprague Grayden: 24) have terrible luck. In Paranormal Activity, elder sister Katie is terrorized by a glass-breaking, door-slamming demon that wants to possess her. In Paranormal Activity 2, it’s little sister’s turn to meet this property damage-obsessed dark entity. Now in the  third things-that-go-bump-in-the-night installment, the filmmakers go back to the beginning to tell us exactly how these sisters had the misfortune to befriend Toby the Unfriendly Demon.
    The film takes us back to a scarier time, the 1980s — the heyday of slasher cinema. Katie (Chloe Csengery: Parenthood) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown: Hawthorne) are acid wash-wearing kids living with their mom Julie (Lauren Bittner: The Mighty Macs) and her new boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith: The Office), a wedding videographer conveniently obsessed with cameras.
    The fun starts when Dennis convinces Julie to make a sex tape. Interrupted by an earthquake, the couple flees the bedroom just as plaster from the ceiling falls, revealing the outline of a large figure standing at the foot of their bed.
    Instead of being terrified, Dennis is intrigued by this ghostly voyeur and sets up cameras throughout the house. This is the 1980s, which means clunky video cameras rather than today’s sleek and portable recording devices. Getting really creative, he mounts a camera to an oscillating fan, so that he can see a slow pan from the kitchen to the living room.
    Our intrepid videographer discovers little Kristi conversing with imaginary friend Toby late at night while her sister is sleeping. Dennis thinks Toby is a ghost, while Julie thinks Dennis is nuts.
    As the days wear on, Toby tires of talking to Kristi and moves to dismantling the house. It starts slow, a shuddering mirror here, a slamming door there, but soon Toby decides to make his presence known.
    This is when the fun begins.
    As Toby terrifies babysitters, slashes at family friends and generally beats the crap out of poor Katie — who didn’t have Kristi’s good sense to befriend the creepy creature — Dennis becomes obsessed with finding the origins of this invisible menace. Julie becomes obsessed with denying every event and forcing her family to behave normally.
    Toby isn’t happy with either of these plans.
    Unlike the first and second films, this prequel tries to fully explain what’s happening to the family. That’s a huge mistake, because the threat you can’t see is always scarier than the threat you understand. Putting a face and an origin to this poltergeist tale takes the teeth out of the scares.
    Plus, why name the demon Toby? It makes him sound like an unruly puppy instead of a hell-raising creature of the night.
    The other inherent problem of Paranormal Activity 3 is the existence of the first two films. This has to be the best-documented family in the history of time. Did the whole household budget go to buying videos? We know that Katie and Kristi will be okay, as we’ve seen them as adults in the other movies, which leaves only Dennis and Julie, who were not named in the other films, as ectoplasmic cannon fodder.
    Most damningly, we know exactly the kind of tricks Toby has up its sleeve. So instead of being genuinely shocked when something falls, or a sheet moves on its own, we’re just amused, because we knew it was coming.
    Still, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (the duo behind last year’s Catfish) add some great innovations. The oscillating camera is genius, as the audience is a prisoner of the camera’s slow pan. It builds suspense while keeping the frame alive and interesting. There’s also a great sequence that plays on the tradition of a ghost as sheet-covered Casper figure.
    Genuine scares are few and far between, however, because the movie sticks so closely to the formula established by the first films. It’s a shame, because Toby was pretty scary before they gave him that dorky name and a best pal named Kristi.

Fair Horror • R • 85 mins.