I never thought I’d yearn for the annual Halloween unveiling of the lastest Saw movie, but after the third in the obnoxious Paranormal Activity series—Paranormal Activity 3—I am filled with Saw nostalgia in the extreme. At least the Saw movies knew what they were, and they hadn’t managed to bamboozle a lot of otherwise rational people into thinking they were good or scary in any significant manner. To watch some of the critical populace fall all over each other in an attempt to tell us how terrifying these wastes of time are tells me less about the films and more that these folks are frightened of things that don’t even slightly bother me.
Indeed, the only thing that scares me about these movies is the potential impact they may have on the genre. Young, wanna-be filmmakers can look at these things and conclude that talent, skill and even the most rudimentary understanding of filmmaking are mere fripperies. That people pile into theaters in droves to watch these movies—and think they’re good—is just mind-boggling.
If you are (blessedly) unfamiliar with these movies, they started back in 2007 when a guy named Oren Peli made a very low-rent video (without playing semantics regarding film versus video as a medium, there is nothing that can be generously called filmmaking going on here) in which some spooky doings in an ugly, personality-free suburban home were caught on videotape. There were zero production values and not that many more scares. But—taking its cue from The Blair Witch Project (1999)—it presented itself as “found footage” and was promoted (more or less tongue-in-cheek) as being “real.” (Well, the dialogue was certainly vapid enough to be real.) Part of the ad campaign (still being used with this new episode) showed audiences watching the film in abject terror. And to top it off, the first film just stopped at the end, leaving the viewer sitting in a dark theater without the comfort of that credit roll. Scary or not, it was clever. The novelty is long gone.
The second film was more of the same, except that it used home-security cameras, added the ultimate in terror with a haunted pool vacuum cleaner, had a slightly bigger payoff, and was actually the lead-in to the first film. With the third, you’re getting—guess what?—more of the same leading into the second film and an admittedly considerably bigger payoff (the only reason this thing’s getting a full star). It’s everything you expect—bad writing, bad acting, bad direction, dull characters and long stretches of boredom punctuated by sudden jolts. I suppose this one should get some credit for the stylistic breakthrough of strapping a camera to an oscillating fan—but that this set up never captures anything more frightening than the series’ usual Satan-as-annoying-practical-joker bouts of “boogie boogie boogie!” loses that credit.
This round—not that it matters all that much—we know from the onset that we’re getting the backstory (via a box of VHS tapes from hell) to the second movie, so the surprises are pretty minimal. This even extends to the big twist ending—where the whole gimmick of all this being taped is taken to hysterically dumb limits—since something of the sort was being toyed with all along. It’s all just so much dead air with occasional loud “scares” thrown at you (perhaps to keep you from nodding off)—and most of those are on a par with those sudden meaningless intrusions of riled cats that have been festooning spooky movies for about 100 years. Ho hum and a big meow.
There’s a rumor that this one concludes the series. Much as I might wish that was true, I can easily see this being dragged on and on—possibly ending with “found cave paintings.” (Throw in Werner Herzog, 3D, some “albino crocodiles” and you might be onto something there.) Problem is this latest one threatens to be yet another hit on yet another small investment. I don’t see Paramount letting go of the franchise without a fight. We’ll see. Rated R for some violence, language, brief sexuality and drug use.