By this, the third installment, there's a familiar normalcy to the happenings in "Paranormal Activity 3." But say this for its unrepentant, unadorned approach to the bump-in-the-night haunt flick: You know exactly what's coming. It tells you what's coming. Eerie noises. Ominous, shadowy bursts. Furniture moving ... on its own! Remarkably, it all still works. This is the grilled cheese sandwich of horror movies, straightforward but quite satisfying, if it's what you're in the mood for.
Like the previous "Paranormal" movies — the first of which was shot for $15,000 and went on to gross nearly $200 million; the second, shot for $3 million, raked in $177 million — the third is filmed by the characters therein. Most of it takes place in 1988, when the sisters from the earlier movies, Katie and Kristi, are little girls first making the acquaintance of the haunts that will follow them later; Kristi, the younger, has what everyone assumes is an imaginary friend named Toby. Their mother, Julie, played to an underconcerned T by Lauren Bittner, reluctantly consents to a request by her videographer boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), to put cameras around their home in a bit of DIY ghostbusting. He starts noticing some low-grade thuds and thumps that can't be explained merely by an errant Teddy Ruxpin doll.
Real-life documentarians Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost (who teamed up for "Catfish") direct. Fans of the previous movies will appreciate that the prequel addresses some of the story points raised in the 2007 and 2010 "Paranormal" flicks, though it's clear by glancing at online discussion boards for this movie that dedicated viewers could drive a dump truck through the plot holes. Care at your own risk.
Also, the trailers would have you believe that all hell proceeds to break loose, but whether those are being saved for the DVD extras or what, the result on the screen is as patient as any 81-minute movie you've seen, with each scene's reveal turning the screw another notch. "Paranormal Activity 3" doesn't over-explain the whys or hows beyond Dennis' buddy Randy (Dustin Ingram) flipping through some library books on the occult (in California, of course, the local branch carries titles like "Demonology"). There are a couple of scary symbols placed on walls and a couple of pretty aggressive acts by whatever's haunting the home. Mostly the low, wooden sighs and random rattlings are attributed to something that stays out of view, and rightly so.
For as campy as the "Paranormal" franchise is (and it's sure to keep expanding, given that these movies print money) there's an endearing quaintness to the films. Audiences absolutely scream at these things, so long as they can suspend their disbelief long enough not to giggle. A swinging door, a shuddering mirror — in the age of profligate digitized explosions, aliens, monsters, magic, space travel, on and on, ad nauseam, ad mortem, how can it be that a little girl standing still for an hour to stare at someone else sleeping is still so utterly creeptastic? The minimalist approach forces even yappy teen-agers to shut up and stare if they're gonna get anything out of it. The scariest things, the funniest things, the sexiest things, the most engrossing things, are those which remain just out of view. When you find yourself wondering how a stationary bedsheet can seem so frightening, you'll stop wondering how these low-budget gotcha flicks keep raking in the dough.