A scene from "Paranormal Activity 3." (Paramount )
"Paranormal Activity 3," the latest installment in the low-budget horror franchise, is far and away the sharpest, most wildly aware film in the series.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, known for their controversial Sundance film "Catfish," are working from the same essential bones as the previous two "Paranormal" movies — a family suspects a threatening, supernatural presence has invaded their home, and so they begin to videotape themselves around the clock in hopes of capturing proof. But there is a fresh, active energy here largely missing from the rather lumbering maneuvers of the earlier "found footage" fright flicks.
The "Paranormal" trilogy centers on two sisters who seem to be cursed by some sort of demon. The first film focused on one adult sister and the second on the other, so for this third film (written by Christopher Landon, also a screenwriter on "Paranormal Activity 2") the story goes back to the time when the siblings were children and answers some of the questions that have hovered over the series. (Namely, why them?)
With the majority of the action set in 1988, "Paranormal Activity 3" is supposedly sourced from videotape footage found relatively recently. Though the filmmakers have lots of fun with '80s aesthetics and artifacts — a Teddy Ruxpin doll is mined for queasy laughs — they don't go quite so far as to make the image look degraded like an old VHS tape as in Harmony Korine's art-horror outing "Trash Humpers."
Throughout, though, there is a newfound wit and invention. The blocking used to get characters (and scares) in and out of shots feels lively and fun, making the jolts hit harder and the thrills giddier.
Rather than the tight confinement of the previous two installments in the "Paranormal Activity" series — which were easier to talk about as products of a marketing phenomenon than as actual films because there frankly wasn't much to them — this one feels downright expansive, with secondary characters (a co-worker friend, a baby sitter, the girls' grandmother) and a change of location for the finale.
All of this proves that Joost and Schulman are real filmmakers and not just stunt artists, more convincing at making a plainly fictional film that purports to be reality than a documentary of shaky authenticity.
Though some of the core problems of logic and framing of the "Paranormal" franchise remain — who is controlling the footage during the signature fast-forwarding sections, making the edits or, this time around, loading that tape into a VCR? — with "Paranormal Activity 3" directors Joost and Schulman have conjured a hipster horror picture that should nevertheless satisfy fans still hungry for more.