Paranormal Activity 3 Scares Despite Problems

When the first “Paranormal Activity” film shuffled into limited release, I scoffed. It seemed so gimmicky on paper. A movie all about security camera footage of demonic possession seemed to ape the classic “Blair Witch Project” so much it seemed like an elaborate joke. Could a gimmick this bad carry a whole film?

For millions of viewers, including myself, it could.

The first movie was tense and suspenseful, maintaining the kind of scares we would expect while gleefully usurping the expectations viewers had for this kind of movie. The second was a considerably less successful film from the first, following an established form far too closely, but it still left the requisite excitement for a third entry.

Thank God it does, because “Paranormal Activity 3” is the best film of the series.

Starting before the first two films, the original protagonist, Katie, delivers a box of childhood tapes to her sister, Kristi. During a burglary, Kristi and her husband find that the tapes have gone missing. We then find ourselves watching the disappeared home movies, which delve into the sisters’ first encounter with the demonic presence that haunted them in the first two films.

“Paranormal Activity” has always been a franchise that has played with the idea of the most frightening thing being what you don’t see rather than what you do, and the third entry in the series does the same, at times making the expression painfully literal.

After a gimmicky premise, we see the girls growing up in the ’80s and their mother, Julie, and her wedding photographer live-in boyfriend, Dennis, notice strange sounds and happenings in the house. Dennis decides to set up his cameras around to tape what goes on, particularly related to a ghostly presence and Kristi’s not-so-imaginary friend.

It’s a slow burn, and much like the first two films, the opening hour of the movie feels like an elaborate game of Where’s Waldo, where viewers have to spot whatever small strange happening is affecting the family. It’s frustrating and often exceedingly dull, never really building the stakes, but only serving to provide the requisite scares and fake outs that audiences demand.

That being said, the movie does become, at times, almost unbearably tense. The final half hour is a horrifying ride, with children being tortured, furniture being tossed violently and the beginning of a deeper mythology than the second film brought to the table. It’s a shame that right when everything picks up and rises to a fever pitch that the movie suddenly ends, leaving us with few real answers.

The effects this time around are the best of the series and Ariel Schulman, director of last year’s stunning and inventive “Catfish,” plays with the camera in ways that beautifully tease the oncoming horrors and raise tension in unexpected ways. It’s the kind of fresh air that a franchise that relies on one already thoroughly exploited gimmick desperately needed.

The problem “Paranormal Activity 3” faces is one not unlike many that long running horror franchises face. The writers are running out of believable situations and new frights, so they try to develop a storyline around the killer. So far, we still have very little, but what’s there works well and sets up future entries in the series without abandoning the frights and slow simmering suspense that the franchise has always brought in spades.