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Paranormal Activity 3

Old tricks, new scares in ‘Paranormal Activity 3’

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / October 21, 2011

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In their gimmicky, low-budget way, the “Paranormal Activity’’ movies reinvent cinema from the ground up. The first installment was made for about $32 and grossed over $100 million on the strength of its absurdly simple set-up: A couple hears spooky noises and posts a few video cameras around the house. Bumps in the night progress to full-on demonic possession, and the captured footage is the movie, one grainy, static image after another. For the audience, the fear and the fun came in searching the shots for the one thing in the frame that’s just not right.

In “Paranormal Activity 3’’ - technically a prequel to a prequel, since we’re back in the late-1980s childhood of the sisters from the first two films - the cinema evolves to include the camera pan. In his quest to document an apparent poltergeist, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), the wedding photographer boyfriend of the girls’ mother (Lauren Bittner), rigs up a VHS camera on a swivel-fan base, and - voila - suspense that takes advantage of both time and space.

In effect, we’ll see a babysitter at the kitchen table, pan over to glimpse a small ghostly figure in the living room, pan back to the oblivious sitter, pan back to an empty living room, pan back to the figure standing just behind the sitter and - you get the idea. It’s mindlessly basic. And it works.

Co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman cut their teeth on 2010’s glib social-media mystery “Catfish,’’ and since they’re clever boys, they make the most of the series’ new toy. Otherwise, “Paranormal Activity 3’’ is almost identical to, and just as eerily effective as, the first two films in its alternation of cheesy “boo!’’ tactics and genuine scares. It also fits the last piece of the narrative puzzle into place so that the faithful will finally understand why the unseen beastie has had it in for the sisters all these years.

The little girls are the film’s ace(s) in the hole, with bossy Katie (Chloe Csengery) and timid Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) at times reminding a viewer of those creepy twins in “The Shining.’’ (Kristi’s nickname for her horned “imaginary’’ friend - Toby - may also be a tip of the hat to Tony in the Kubrick film.) But “Paranormal Activity 3’’ has no interest in art. It just wants to give you the willies with a minimum of gore and a maximum of camcorder dread, and it succeeds.

The “Paranormal Activity’’ films repeat too many tricks to make watching one after another satisfying. They’ll eventually be packaged together on DVD, but they’re not made for DVD. Campfire ghost stories need a large audience, and the way to see these films is one at a time in a movie theater, you, your friends, and a roomful of strangers happily climbing the walls with screams and laughter. They reclaim the pleasures of the good old-fashioned communal shriek.

Ty Burr can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

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PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 Directed by: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman Written by: Christopher B. Landon

Starring: Chloe Csengery, Jessica Tyler Brown, Lauren Bittner, Christopher

Nicholas Smith

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 85 minutes

Rated: R (some violence, language, brief sexuality, drug use)

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