Docudramamine

Paranormal Activity 3, written by Christopher B. Landon, based on characters and situations created by Oren Peli, starring Chloe Csengery (Katie), Jessica Tyler Brown (Kristi), Lauren Bittner (Julie), and Dustin Ingram (Randy Rosen) (2011): The ‘documentary/found footage’ subgenre of horror films, so popular right now, harks back to the 19th-century beginnings of what we now recognize as the horror story. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was told in the form of letters and diary entries; Bram Stoker’s Dracula added fake newspaper clippings to that mix; Edgar Allan Poe played with fiction and fact within stories that were sometimes published as ‘fact.’

H.P. Lovecraft moved the documentary style in a more holistic fictional direction, having his narrators tell ostensibly true tales about fictional events and mythologies and framing everything inside the conceit that the fiction was the real truth about the universe, and recognized fact the fiction.

I have a great fondness for these attempts at documentary horror — at their best, they’re much better than almost every other filmed attempt at horror in the last twenty or thirty years, in part because they move so resolutely away from the grapohic violence of the slasher films that have dominated the horror film genre since the late 1970’s. Suggestion and subtlety are what work best in these movies, and Paranormal Activity 3 comes up with some lovely moments of ‘found’ horror.

The fictional backstory of the three Paranormal films situates the entire narrative within the subtext of long-term child sexual, physical and emotional abuse, abuse that spans generations and is part of the horror. It’s a classic example of Stephen King’s ‘sub-text school’ of horror, in which the supernatural stands in for something too mundanely awful to be depicted on film.

Thankfully, one can also say ‘pooh!’ to sub-text and simply enjoy the movies as a depiction of the pervasive and perhaps unkillable influence of supernatural evil. That the threatened protagonists are spiritually and intellectually unsuited to a confrontation with elemental and generational evil is part of the point of the movies, I think — no one is coming to save them because they’re too dumb, or too conditioned to an unintellectual passivity, to make any real effort to save themselves. They’re reactive, not pro-active.

I won’t bother with the plot of the movie, or even the characterization. It all makes more sense if you’ve seen the first two films, though if you haven’t you may be a lot more shocked at some of the plot developments. There is clever, killer use of a camera mounted on a rotating fan within the story world, with menace building as we move at a set pace back and forth from foyer to dining room and back again, and things start to appear that shouldn’t be there.

There’s also one of the smarter, more realistic character reactions to a haunting that I’ve seen in some time — a secondary character seems to have seen Eddie Murphy’s hilarious bit about The Amityville Horror and reacts accordingly when threatening weirdness occurs. Highly recommended.

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