Day 23: Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

Oh, the Paranormal Activity films.

This is a series that has become surprisingly divisive since the release of the wildly successful first film, with the naysayers calling them rote and boring, but I’ve always found them—well, fuck all terrifying, to be honest.

Maybe terrifying is the wrong word. These movies set me on edge and keep me there. These are simple movies, more experiments in suspense and structure than anything else. The three movies adhere to the same basic rhythm, the slow accumulation of tension, the onset of dread when day turns to night and all kinds of newfangled tension building camera trickery–it’s a formula sure, but it’s a formula that drives me up the wall.

Directed by Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, part 3 picks up near the end of the second film, with the unfortunate protagonists digging up a crate of old VHS tapes. These old tapes cover events in the sisters’ youth when some familiar disturbances started to pop up on video tape.

With an affable cast and clever camera work, Part 3 may be the best paced and likable of the three—well, four, now—Paranormal Activity films. The two leads in the film, played by Lauren Bittner and Chris Smith, are both fun to watch, whether they’re screwing around in front of the camera or they’re sneaking around the house investigating creepy noises.  In that regard, you actually grow to care a bit about these jokers, not much like Micah from the first film, who was practically begging for his demon death at the end.

But the important question here is, is it scary? And the answer is yes. Part 3 isn’t as scary as the first film, but it’s told with more flair and energy than the films rather flat second.

There are a few standout sequences in 3. Most of them involving a camera rigged to an oscillating fan—the camera swoops one way to a person minding his or her own business, pans to the other side of the room to see… nothing? Ghosts? You spend the entire movie frantically searching the empty space in the frame, desperate for something to fill it, and when it finally does, you practically have to pause the movie to put your skin back on.

Even though the oscillating fan seems to be everyone’s favorite gizmo in this film, my favorite sequence is when one of the youngesters drags her step-dad’s friend into the bathroom for a game of Bloody Mary. The screen goes totally dark, save for the shining record light of the camera. After a lengthy time sitting in a quiet, dark room, you get pretty desperate for something to happen, but once sounds start rumbling from outside the bathroom, you really don’t want to see what’s on the other side of that damn door.

Despite being intense and clever, the movie is a farcry from perfect. Schulman and Joost  introduce some plot elements in this prequel that get more than a little silly by films’ end, so silly that it takes you right out of the moment.You still get a reaction, that’s for sure, but a horror movie is supposed to make you squeal, not derisively blow raspberries at the screen.

Day 24: The Thing (2011)

When news dropped that Universal was putting out a prequel pseudo-remake of The Thing, I thought it was a pretty clever little play. In concept, making the movie a prequel that shows what happened at the ill-fated Norwegian camp from John Carpenter’s original would give horror fans one less thing to complain about, but it also allow the filmmakers to tell the same basic story for an audience not primed on a 25-year-old movie that tanked in the box office. Because, come to find out, what happened at the Norwegian camp is basically the exact same thing we saw in the American camp.

Though it shares the same basic story with The Thing, with a shape shifting monster infiltrating the ranks of a group of isolated scientists, this version of the story lacks the cold sense of dread that makes all of the gnarly ooky-spooky monster scenes from Carpenters version work. Here, director NAME, relies more on visceral scares than having the characters bounce drive each-other insane through fear and paranoia. Chalk it up to a weak cast here, headed up by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who certainly has chops, but not enough weight to carry a movie like this.

Not to harp on about Carpenter’s version of The Thing, but the film simply had a better cast–Russell had support from a fantastic group of well seasoned character actors: Keith David, Wilford Brimley, Donald Moffat, and Richard Masur. These actors give weight to The Things otherwise disposable cast, whereas in the remake it’s mostly just Winstead, that guy who looks like Jeremy Renner but isn’t Jeremy Renner and then Interchangeable Bearded Norwegians #1-12.