Ever since The Blair Witch Project unleashed itself on an unsuspecting populous still trying to get to grips with this new fangled gadget called the Internet back in 1999 – cleverly enticing audiences not sure what they were going to see into theaters with a seminally savvy is-it-real-or-isn’t-it viral marketing campaign – indie filmmakers and studio execs alike have been skulking with a camcorder around all manner of low-fi locations and cackling all the way to the bank. You can see why they like the idea – it’s bloody cheap. Blair Witch returned almost a quarter of a million dollars for an initial $20,000 investment. Little more than a decade later and the idea has been wholly appropriated by the studio system and refined from an indie curiosity to a bona fide commercial product. Not that it’s affected the audience desire to go and see it, mind, far from it. Paranormal Activity 3 returned more than ten times it’s budget in a little under seventy-two hours.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it (see Book of Shadows: Blair Witch Two) appears to have been the mandate issued to co-directors Ariel Schulman & Henry Joost, following the likes of David Gordon Green down the path from indie darling to mainstream helmer-for-hire. The pair were the talk of last year’s festival circuit with their provocative docu-drama Catfish, with much of the discussion centered on just how much of it was genuine versus staged. Whatever your feelings on that, the pair are ideal for this and their outside-the-box thinking provides Paranormal Activity 3 with its most effective sequences.

Ostensibly a prequel, this third installment in this handmade haunted house saga centers on franchise mainstay Katie and her sister Kristi, here as little girls. Their father – as luck would have it! – is a wedding videographer, and, having captured a shadowy figure in the midst of an aborted sex tape, who Kristi refers to only as ‘Toby’, decides to set-up his equipment to see what other spooky goings on might be at work here. This being the `80’s he can’t quite rig his house up like CTU Los Angeles, and so to the aforementioned outside-the-box thinking.

In addition to the basic set-ups the most eerily effective sequence comes courtesy of a rotating camera attached to an oscillating fan, allowing us to glimpse a full circle’s field of view, but only in split-second snatches. Also effective is the waist high nature of the tripod, which compensates for a lack of motion by offering a sense of being in the midst of the action rather than gazing down on it from above. It also cuts down significantly on the nauseating shaky-cam that has come to define so-called handheld horror (surely if they put the camera away they could run faster). The disturbances themselves are by now almost entirely on rails at this point; a combination of wirework, post-production jump cuts, and simply interrupting the calm with an unbearably loud noise every now and then.

That’s not to say that it isn’t effective. The scares come thick and fast, the kids are likable but not mawkish, and the fact that the grown-ups are all at least professional actors by now can never hurt a picture. But, in an effort to justify it’s own existence by interweaving something approaching a mythology surrounding the malevolent demon that is intrinsically tied to the children they have inadvertently painted themselves into a corner. Where do they go from here, babies? At best they have perhaps one generation with which to leap back to. Any further and the home video camera is just a glint in Kodak’s eye.

What Paranormal Activity 3 does do, completely unintentionally we have no doubt, is provide a compelling argument as to why we go the theater at a time when streaming, VOD, and the price of a ticket these days has led many to question its relevance. A staple of date night’s and group outings everywhere the cinema is still fundamentally a social experience. Despite the fact that you sit in the dark, in silence, and passively observe something projected on a screen, cinema is in essence an escapist fantasy experienced collectively within a shared space, where the raucous laughter and howls of terror emitted by your fellow creature is all part of the magic. As counter-intuitive as that may sound, sitting on the couch in your darkened living room, clutching a blanket, is perhaps the least effective way to experience a film like this. This one is best experienced in the most crowded theater available, in front of the largest screen you can find.

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