Saturday, November 12, 2011

If It Ain't Broke...

America has two movie seasons - aggressively stupid blockbusters in the summer and solemnly boring Oscar bait in the winter. And in between - in the dog days of August, in the bleak days just around Oscar time, there are the good films. Genre films - mean little horror and sci-fi flicks where American filmmakers are allowed to be brave and creative, even with sequels.

Paranormal Activity 3 is a sequel of a sequel. And a prequel. And it blows Transformers and The Tree of Life out of the water!

Those of you familiar with the Paranormal Activity franchise (and those of you who aren't - what the hell is wrong with you?) know this is gonna be another hour and a half of "found footage" with spooky shit building to a tremendously violent crescendo. That's good. Great even. As Mark E. Smith said, "We dig repetition!" And repetition is way more common in good movies than film school benders want to admit.

How the same old tricks and scares is delivered, that's why you go see Paranormal Activity 3 and I gotta hand it to the crew behind this film, they know how to use a camera. You'd think that would be a given among filmmakers but no, they all think they're authors or something. Just delivering a straight story. It's the rare greats like David Lynch and the PA team who recognize film as being capable of things you just can't express in any other medium.

Specifically - and most importantly - building tension. Horror films have been a staple of the multiplex for generations now but for some reason it's only the infrequent greats like PA that manage to do it right. The scare isn't when the monster jumps out, it's the anticipation. After all, you know the monster is coming, you just don't know when or how so a good horror film - and Paranormal Activity 3 is very good - paces itself in such a way that your hair stands on end even when absolutely nothing is happening. When the stepdad is first walking around the house with his camera, even with nothing spooky happening, you the viewer are wired because of the steady pace and absolute quiet save for his voice (which comes rarely, he's a big improvement over the chattery yutz in the first film). Later, as the strange events build on one another, they still remain just brief enough not to get you used to it.

This being a prequel or sequel or whatever, the filmmakers are obligated to reveal more of the mythology surrounding the PA series demon. This is the most difficult thing to do - nothing wrecks a horror story like exposition. To their credit, the new information gained does nothing to make the strange goings on familiar and the new revelations are kept enough in the shadow that you've still got that unknown quality. And the unknown coming to get you is what horror is all about.

Finally, and this won't be apparent to most viewers, the makers of Paranormal Activity 3 really did their homework. The film takes place in 1988 and it is the most faithful recreation of that period I have seen - odd considering how all the aging Gen Xers are now fetishizing that decade. It's not overt though, it's very subtle in the styles of hair, clothing, even interior decorating. Anyone who remembers that popular faux-stonework will see what I mean. These touches may seem small - they are - but they are vitally important for scene setting. Especially in a film that has so many carefully constructed long shots of the house itself.

Three movies in and Paranormal Activity is still one of the better cinema options out there. It's familiar ground but who cares when it's such a fun and well done ride?

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