Katie (Katie Featherston) is moving. Asked if she’s nervous about it, she shakes her head: no, she’s glad to be headed somewhere else. She doesn’t say why, and it may be a generic excitement she’s feeling, a change of situation can do that. But you know that she and her sister Kristi (Sprague Hayden) have a history with particular places, namely haunted houses. And so it’s hard for you to think her eagerness to be in a new place is only that.
Once again, the Paranormal Activity franchise is helping you do the work of watching. The third film doesn’t fill in much in terms of backstory or motivation or even memory. (It appears that what you’re seeing here is utterly un-remembered by the sisters in the first two films.) Instead, it offers slivers — of images, of shadows, of off-screen noises — none quite clear, all leading you to worry about what you don’t see or might be seeing soon. And also — no small thing — what might or might not be moving. Thus, when Katie is moving, it’s no coincidence that she leaves behind a box of videotapes — “Old school!”, observes Kristi’s husband, Daniel (Brian Boland) — in her sister’s basement. As Katie leaves the box, Daniel’s camera peers down from the basement stairway: he’s on his own recording spree, documenting preparations for his and Kristi’s new baby.
Here Paranormal Activity 3 turns to the tapes, appropriately aged and grainy and shot by Dennis (Christopher Nicolas Smith) in 1988, just after he’s moved in with Katie and Kristi’s mother Julie (Lauren Bittner). As in previous Paranormal Activitys, here a demon lurks amid hapless humans, makes noise and moves furniture. In this case, the demon is picking on little girls, Katie and Kristi when they’re about nine and six (played by Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown). Being little girls, they’re pretty much in constant motion, running in and out of frames set up by Dennis: he’s a professional videographer (he tapes weddings), which partly justifies how he comes to set up cameras in multiple rooms in their Carlsbad CA home in order to investigate a few weird sounds.
Dennis’ spotty vocation is a source of anxiety for Julie’s mother (Hallie Foote), brings in a coworker (who responds to the footage much as he does: “Holy fuck!”), and helps him to excuse his taping obsession: when Kristi wonders why he’s filming her tea party, he smiles, “I’m testing my new camera”). Dennis’ cameras produce footage resembling the first two Paranormal Activity movies: time-stamped, single angle long shots, some time-lapsed, as people sleep. The camera in Julie and Dennis’ room is pointed at a mirror, so its red light glows throughout, eerie and implacable. In the girls’ room, Kristi’s frequently up and about, speaking with her “imaginary friend,” the odious Toby.
Predictably, the adults don’t take Toby seriously (“Toby’s a phase,” says Julie, “he’s gonna be gone in two weeks”), you know better. And as this invisible force begins behaving more aggressively, imposing his will on the child (“Sorry Toby!” she says during that tea party, which guests include a teddy bear and Dennis, explaining, “I put my hand on him, he doesn’t like that”), Dennis becomes increasingly intrigued. He reads library books (Malevolent Entities), and he comes up with a contraption for the camera in the kitchen, an oscillating fan stand.
Simple and jury rigged, this device provides the movie with its most disturbing moments: as the camera swivels on an axis from the front door past the living room to the kitchen table, it allows long seconds of waiting time, so you’re left anticipating not only what might move through the frame (Kristi running in her nightgown, papers flapping in an unexplained “wind”), but also what the moving frame will suddenly contain.
Most of these scenes show nothing much, shadows and possible flutters and the babysitter doing her homework. When they do display something odd — a sheet hovering like a ghost-costume in a corner, a ceiling light swinging just slightly — you’re left to worry — rather vividly and viscerally — about what’s coming next.
Given the self-imposed limits of Paranormal Activity — each “found footage” episode follows “rules” — the oscillating image is ingenious, a technologically primitive way to expand the image literally and figuratively, while at the same time insisting on its restrictions. This paradox — the less you see the more you think you see, or the more you think about seeing — is what used to make horror go. Before Tom Savini and Dan O’Bannon, and before the essential redundancy of torture porn, scary movies depended on viewers’ imaginations.
The Paranormal Activity films return to that low-budget idea, with an exponentially high profits pay-off. Their plots are rudimentary, and this third installment’s architecture is both banal and ludicrous (as it elucidates how the sisters came to know the demon plaguing them in the first two films, it wades into hoary-old-witches waters). But you don’t go to horror movies for story. You go for sensation, to be moved. Paranormal Activity 3 not only gets that, it also asks you to get it, to be aware of how you’re being moved, and your part in the moving.