When you’re making a horror movie, the hard part is always human diversity—you have to trigger fear for the largest number of people, which is tough since we’re all a slightly different brand of crazy. Sometimes filmmakers go too specific—targeting agoraphobics, or those random people with papaphobia (uncontrollable fear of the Pope) or even the weirdos who shriek at the sight of wet bread. This tactic always fails. The trick is to find an element of the human psyche that’s ALWAYS ready to be freaked out. Which is what the Paranormal Activity series has done so effectively. No matter who you are, you have a bed that you go home to at night, and when you sleep you’re completely vulnerable to molestation by demons.
This concept—the universal fear of an unseen menace stalking us in our place of safety—has been the heart of the “PA” trilogy, the third installment of which opened this week (and is shown mostly at midnight, meaning you have to go to bed right after seeing it, get it??). All three PA films plunk in the same formula: one member of a suburban California couple installs cameras throughout their impossibly well-appointed two-bedroom house to document strange happenings during the night. Said strange happenings occur, everyone freaks out, and then we all go home and chug some Ambien.
Unfortunately, the trope is feeling heavy, and all the sameness can get tiresome—the “handmade home video” footage has a carbon-copy look and feel in all three movies, the scares are similar (if not identical), and even the title treatment is rote. Plus, by now, the plots are running a bit thin—the story always centers around the same two sisters (these chicks cannot get a demon-free break) and the various Bumps In the Night that pursue them wherever they go (and sleep).
This time around, we see protagonists Katie and Kristi in their late-80s childhood, tormented by yet another preternatural corps de ballet as their parents flounder to figure out what’s going on. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (remember “Catfish”?) come up with a few new gimmicks to expand on the original premise—a camera placed on a fan oscillator is a clever trick, enhancing spookiness by taking its time to show you a full view of the room. But for the most part, we’ve got a regurgitated hash-up of the previous two films in all their grainy, irradiated splendor.
None of this ruins the film’s effectiveness. The point is to hit that “creeped out” sweetspot that exists in all our brains, and that’s what these movies do. Whether they’re “good” or “bad” is irrelevant—what matters is that they’re effective. You could make the case that they’re monotonous on purpose—they know they have a Pavlovian audience that’s trained to scare on cue. There’s not much point in changing things up. We already know what’s coming: We’ll have an “oh shit something might be watching me” feeling delivered straight to our neocortex, where it will sit and germinate until we get home and turn off the lights.
The PA movies also get big fat bonus points for evicting Saw from its penthouse on the top floor of mainstream horror. The Era of Torture Porn was getting oppressive, threatening to drown us all in hematic flesh-soddering banality. When PA came along, with its piggy bank budget and $13,000 in profits-per-dollar-spent, the Saw series dissolved like skin in hydrochloric acid, social commentary and all. And thank God for that, since I wasn’t sure if I could sit through another one of those damn things, horror column or no.