The activity is pretty normal in Paranormal Activity 3, at least relative to its predecessors. The gimmick this time around is that the story is a prequel, detailing the initial 1998 spooky encounters with unseen ghosts by young sisters Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown), all of which are shrugged off by mom Julie (Lauren Bittner) and videotaped by the ever-watchful gaze of loving stepdad Dennis’s (Christopher Nicholas Smith) multiple cameras. Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, whose prior Catfish was also a faux-documentary put-on, and aesthetically identical to the prior two installments, the film trots out what’s become the series’s stock and trade: loving VHS home movies that devolve into nocturnal views of hallways, bedrooms, and living rooms (often in time-lapse fast-forward) that slowly reveal some manner of subtle otherworldly presence. The build-up is predictably slow, the characters are uniformly innocent and bland, and the action’s gradual escalation to its wannabe-harrowing finale is kept interesting primarily via the constant possibility of a good jolt scare. However, it’s in this last regard that Paranormal Activity 3 most forcefully stumbles, proving incapable of delivering a single moment that unsettles, much less rattles the nerves like Paranormal Activity 2’s nifty kitchen-cabinet explosion.
In place of actual terror, Joost and Schulman’s entry continues the franchise’s tradition of maximizing natural sound, light, and settings to situate its horror in a relatable reality, and the directors do get a bit of suspenseful mileage out of a back-and-forth camera affixed to a motorized fan mechanism. But like the half-visible specters, strange off-screen noises, and performances that feel more amateurish than natural, the air of pseudo-realism continues to reap ever-lesser dividends. Furthermore, the introduction of some thinly sketched mythology in order to lay a narrative foundation for Katie and Kristi’s lifelong relationship with their demon—who here takes the form of Toby, Kristi’s chatty imaginary friend—doesn’t heighten mystery so much as expose the increasing desperation of the series in general, which having exhausted the novelty of its verité bump-in-the-night template, now finds it necessary to justify its own existence through explanations. Given the dismal track record of such a horror-sequel approach, it’s no surprise that the more one knows about these ghostly proceedings, the less disturbing they become, right down to a finale that involves the double-whammy of idiotic character behavior and the hackneyed-to-death trope of the POV camera toppling over onto its side.