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Cool?... Or Calculated? The Ad Campaign for 'Paranormal Activity 3'

If the promise is merely to frighten, Paranormal Activity 3 delivers. How it chooses to do so may not be an issue, unless you believe in that clichéd concept of truth in advertising.

Paranormal Activity 3

Director: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Cast: Laurie Bittner, Christopher Nicolas Smith, Chloe Csengery, Jessica Brown, Hallie Foote, Katie Featherston, Brian Boland, Sprague Grayden
Rated: R
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-10-21 (General release)
UK date: 2011-10-21 (General release)

With a record setting $54 million at the box office and some of the best reviews of the entire franchise, Paranormal Activity 3 has proven, once again, that fright fans will flock to any meaningful mainstream macabre, even a movie that appears to be yet another rehash of an already suspect premise. As you recall, the original Paranormal Activity saw a supposedly happy couple haunted by an unseen entity. They used the current technology (a camcorder set up in their bedroom) to record the nightly visitations, as well as the inevitable reality of the sinister situation. Part 2 played it safe, structured as a simultaneous supernatural event involving another family member.

In this third installment, we get a prequel of sorts, an attempted explanation as to why sisters Katie and Kristi became the targets of an unholy presence in the first place. There are hints of a hoary old urban legend (the whole mirror/”Bloody Mary” myth) and a suggestion of something far more diabolical within the offspring’s lineage. The ending, which won’t be spoiled here, does leave things open for yet another installment (expanding on the proposed origin story, one suspects) and as long as it employs the more story-oriented approach of the current effort, the possibilities are endless. In fact, unlike the Saw films, which seemed locked within a limited pool of potential suspects, Paranormal Activity can equally explore the past as well as the present.

All of which makes the marketing of this third release incredibly important. Starting with a teaser which emphasized the Bloody Mary element, and then accenting same with a stellar trailer filled with lots of scares and shocks, the previews promised a true rollercoaster ride. In fact, many of the indelible images contain therein – the girls discovering the truth about the mirror bit, various items flying around the house in poltergeist abandon, a secret room filled with disturbing children’s drawing, flying bodies, a warning from the mother and the inevitable supernatural comeuppance, the horrific image of a child jumping off a balcony – all promise something extreme. But on further review, outside the hype and the hints, none of these sequences actually appeared in the film proper. In fact, what’s clear is that certain scenes were filmed for the trailer itself, removed before release to keep the actual lingering scares intact.

It happened with the second film. A scene showing a small infant standing out in the middle of the street was never included in the original release. Indeed, this seems to be the strategy employed by these films, a bait and switch subterfuge more common with the comedy than the fright flick. Everyone has been a victim of the lame laugher preview, a trailer which tells every hackneyed joke present in a motion picture…and more times than not, gags or alternative punchlines purposefully left out. Research shows that audiences don’t mind the spoilers since it indicates what they can expect from the title, In this case, however, it appears that Paranormal Activity 3 purposefully lied about what one can expect from the experience. Unlike the first film which gave away the ending in each of its various media offerings, the individuals in charge of marketing this installment decided to deceive the viewer, keeping the jolts actually in the movie a secret while showing scares that just aren’t there.

The question becomes – is that fair? An accumulated box office of almost $55 million would argue in the affirmative. But there’s another school of thought that suggests that such con artistry is insincere, selling the viewer something that the product has no intention of delivering. In general, a horror film is advertising that it’s scary. It needs to prove that it will make your skin crawl and your spine tingle. A case can be made for promising same via whatever means necessary. On the other hand, anticipation is part of the moviegoing process. If someone suggests a haunted scenario will occur with characters constantly under duress, and yet none of that actually occurs in the film, the fraud has been perpetrated. Sure, you’ve preserved the fear inherent, but at the expense of your narrative’s integrity.

Something similar happened when The Fourth Kind arrived in theaters. For weeks, the film was advertised as a docudrama containing actual footage of UFO abduction cases and proof of alien evil in a remote part of Alaska. Even the opening of the movie, featuring star Milla Jovovich arguing for the story’s authenticity, promised the truth. In reality, the entire product was a lie, a fiction within a fiction which saw actors recreate the argued evidence while the fictional material acted as a kind of dramatic commentary. It wasn’t until days after the release when web detectives uncovered the ruse, pointing out that so-called experts and eye witnesses were actually fakes. While the fear was still palpable, the reason for it was thrown into question.

In the case of Paranormal Activity 3, it’s a question of content. When you tell a potential viewer that they will see a spooky figure in a darkened bathroom mirror, when you illustrate the psychological terror the entity is inspiring in the family (included in the kid’s crayon drawings), when you show that an innocent young girl will be ‘possessed,’ motivated to leap off the top of her bedroom balcony and return up said stairwell unharmed and giggling, you anticipate their inclusion in the plotline. You wonder when they will occur and contemplate the reaction among the characters. But since none of these items have been included in this version of the film, it doesn’t matter. Sure, you get stunned by other horrific things, just not the ones that sold you on sitting in the theater in the first place.

Just imagine the latest Adam Sandler film, sold on a series of silly gags, which instead, turns semi-serious and avoids almost all the jokes it offered in the trailer. Better yet, think of a big budget action movie sold on a solid car chase set-piece that actually never appears in the film. Early in the pre-production of Sam Raimi’s Spider-man, a teaser arrived showing the superhero thwarting a bank robbery, leaving the criminals caught in a massive web strung up between the two towers of the World Trade Center. That clearly never made it into the final cut. If the promise is merely to frighten, Paranormal Activity 3 delivers. How it chooses to do so may not be an issue, unless you believe in that clichéd concept of truth in advertising. The trailer hinted at a certain level of fear. The film provided said shivers…just not in the way the preview pledged.

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