*. Once more we pick up the video recorder, this time with a prequel to the prequel that rounds out the initial Paranormal Activity trilogy. There would be more Paranormal Activity movies built around the same mythology — with a franchise this wildly profitable there had to be more — but I think these first three films stand together well as a self-contained unit.
*. Overall, I think that the trilogy works pretty well, without any real falling off in terms of quality. That said, the sense that we have been here before is by now both justified and pronounced. What this means is predictability in terms of structure and technique.
*. As for the structure, I had to shake my head at the line on the DVD box telling me that “the last fifteen minutes will mess you up for life.” They didn’t, but the warning fits with the way each of these movies is constructed, which is to say they are slow burns of rising tension until we come to a sudden (and invariably grim and downbeat) ending. The last fifteen (or ten) minutes is the only reason you’re here. The rest is all build-up.
*. Is there a connection between such a structure and the found-footage mode of presentation? I guess found footage presupposes a messy end for the filmmakers, and has since The Blair Witch Project, or, before that, Cannibal Holocaust.
*. The shaky-cam technique has its own associated risks and rewards. No, it doesn’t make much sense for Dennis to still be filming everything up to the bitter end. But that oscillating camera mounted on the fan base was a stroke of genius. I thought they could have used that even more.
*. More specific to the technique in this series of films is the use of the stationary, surveillance camera. Because we spend so long in these set positions watching and waiting for something to happen, trying to detect subtle things like a flickering light, a slight humming noise, footsteps, or a slowly opening door, we leave ourselves more exposed to the inevitable shock effects. These are nicely delivered, and for my money I think this is probably the most frightening of the three films.
*. As far as the story goes, much of it is just an explanation, without any big surprises, of what went on in the first two films. The stitching is a bit crude, depending on the premise that the girls had their minds wiped so they didn’t remember any of this (the demon also stole the tapes at the beginning of the second film, which made me wonder why it didn’t just destroy them in the first place, or how we, the audience, came to be watching them now). Anyway, apparently grandma was part of a witches’ coven who traded away a male child for wealth and power. From the looks of things I’d say they were ripped off, but that’s what happens when you make a deal with the devil.
*. Given that we have not just one but two terrorized tots in this picture, I suppose this would be as good a time as any to bring up the subject of the presence of children in such films.
*. Of course, children — be they threatened, threatening, or a bit of both — have always been a staple of horror films, almost constituting a genre of their own. There is a storied tradition of this kind of thing. That said, it seems to me that it’s a trend that really seemed to take off in American horror films in the early twenty-first century, with this movie and Paranormal Activity 2 (which featured a threatened toddler, no less), Sinister, Insidious, a whole raft of new exorcism-possession movies, and others too numerous to catalogue here.
*. Was this the fallout from the J-horror phenomenon, with its gaggle of deadly schoolgirls? Or had the nuclear family broken down to such an extent that we could only now openly admit that we actually hated kids and thought they were all possessed? Does your child act up like these little monsters? Either call an exorcist or get them some Ritalin. Same thing in the end.
*. Some explanation for the demon Toby’s poltergeist shenanigans is given by the (stolen) library books. Apparently he feeds and grows stronger on fear. This strikes me a shoehorned rationalization. I mean, Toby is practically knocking the whole house down in what seems to be an earthquake in his first appearance. I still don’t see why he doesn’t just kill off the parents and arrange for grandma to take the girls without bothering with all the rest of his noise.
*. At least the gender roles are reversed this time. Dennis is the one who believes in the presence of an evil spirit while Julie is the one who mocks him. The ’80s were a more progressive time, you see.
*. I quite like this series. They stuck throughout to the low-budget roots of the first film and its cheap but tried-and-true thrills. Does the Bloody Mary game ever get old? Not yet, anyway. And a ghost in a bedsheet? Why not?
*. I’d rate this the best of the three, just because it had the least dead time and the most “Gotcha!” moments. Even though we’ve been here before and we know the script, the tension builds well. If it all seems a bit fuzzy in the end that can be excused by the exigencies of franchise filmdom, the limits of found-footage narrative, and the fact that life just sucked on VHS.