‘Paranormal Activity 3’ has the found-footage genre down to a science (Movie review)

Many horror franchises get lazy with each new entry, falling back on what worked in previous installments rather than getting innovative. I’m happy to say that the “Paranormal Activity” franchise is an exception. Although it still operates within the “found footage” format, the third entry comes up with fresh ways to present the footage.

The best innovation is that Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), the dad of young Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and Katie (Katie Featherston) in this flashback story to 1988, puts a camera atop an oscillating fan so that it pans back and forth between the living room and the kitchen. (In between, incidentally, is a toy nook with ’80s vintage Cabbage Patch Kids and even a Cabbage Patch Kids Show Pony — you couldn’t buy product placement like that back in the day.)

It almost doesn’t matter what the filmmakers do with the oscillating camera shots. It’s enough that we in the audience expect something to suddenly appear in a room that was empty on the previous pan. Expected or not, the scares are still effective. There’s a thin line between scary and funny, though, and I had to stifle a giggle throughout one scene involving Katie and Kristi’s babysitter and a … well, I won’t spoil it. Let’s just say it’s a classic, but still effective, scare.

We also get an amusing new character, Dennis’ friend Randy (Dustin Ingram), who works for Dennis’ wedding-video business and gets recruited into the ghost-hunting within the home. Ingram has some amusingly genuine “What the f—-!” deliveries, and one of the film’s best sequences finds him babysitting young Katie and trying to be the calming adult when in fact he’s terrified.

I also gotta say that Jessica Tyler Brown is well-cast as young Kristi. Like all cinematic dark-haired little girls in nightgowns who have an imaginary friend, she’s simultaneously cute and kinda creepy. Par for the course among horror-movie parents, Dennis and Julie (Lauren Bittner), discourage their daughter from making best friends with a ghost.

I can’t think of a movie that leaves out more scenes from its trailer than “Paranormal Activity 3.” I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s certainly remarkable. One of the reasons I thought this movie looked great was the “Bloody Mary” scene from the teaser trailer. The girls say “Bloody Mary” into a mirror in a dark room three times, then Katie does the flashlight-under-her-chin scare. As they giggle and leave the room, we see Bloody Mary standing in the dark.

There is a variation on that scene in the movie, which is entertaining throughout despite the missing scenes. I was slightly disappointed by the ending, though, which is reminiscent of last year’s “The Last Exorcism” in how abruptly it hits us with new information. Despite the late add-ons, I was left wanting more answers to the questions that had been raised earlier in the film. I was also thinking “How in the world does Dennis have the presence of mind to still be filming?!”

And, indeed, I’ll be surprised if there isn’t a “Paranormal Activity 4” next October. Although the franchise isn’t in self-parody mode yet, I’m worried that it could get there soon. As I noted, it’s a fine line. I found “PA3” quite scary and fun, but I was also thinking of great opportunities for parodies. (The YouTube community hasn’t capitalized on “PA3” yet, so I instead went back and watched some of the farting videos based on “PA1”; I am weak like that.)

What were your thoughts on the third entry? Does the “Paranormal Activity” franchise still deliver the goods, or is it time to shut off the camera?