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Paranormal Activity 3: Unrated Director's Cut Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy Review

Paranormal Activity 3 movie poster Paranormal Activity 3

Theatrical Release: October 21, 2011 / Running Time: 84 Minutes (Theatrical Cut), 94 Minutes (Director's Cut) / Rating: R (Theatrical Cut), Unrated (Director's Cut)

Directors: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman / Writers: Christopher Landon (screenplay); Oren Peli (original film & characters)

Cast: Lauren Bittner (Julie), Chris Smith (Dennis Wolf), Chloe Csengery (Katie), Jessica Brown (Kristi), Hallie Foote (Grandma Lois), Dustin Ingram (Randy Rosen), Johanna Braddy (Lisa), Katie Featherston (Adult Katie), Brian Boland (Daniel Rey), Sprague Grayden (Adult Kristi Rey)

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By the looks of it, Paranormal Activity should have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Like The Blair Witch Project ten years before it, the shoestring-budgeted 2009 found footage horror film came just at the right time, captured the public's attention, and delivered an ungodly profit-to-cost ratio. The Blair Witch model made a pretty convincing case against creating a sequel as soon as possible, but Paranormal's producers did just that anyway.
Without drastically altering their formula (the cast was still comprised of unknowns and though the reported production budget had grown twenty times, it was still a modest $3 million), they practically repeated the original film's success, grossing a bit less domestically and a bit more overseas to the delightful tune of $178 M in worldwide receipts.

Suddenly, the film largely responsible for the demise of Lionsgate's annual Saw franchise had inherited the void it left in Hollywood's calendars. Paranormal Activity is the new Saw, but with lower costs, broader appeal, far more respectable reviews, and infinitely less torture.

I expected the law of diminishing returns to hit last year's entry, Paranormal Activity 3, with the public's reaction to its immediate predecessor more muted than on the original film. In fact, PA3 opened bigger and though it had the series' weakest legs to date, it still ended up with a domestic gross close to the first film and a franchise-high worldwide take of $203 M. And while the production budget again rose, it was still kept to just $5 million, well under the competition and far less than the marketing costs of such a high-profile wide release.

If you saw the original Paranormal Activity (and there is simply no good excuse not to have by this point), then you know it was not a film brimming with sequel potential. And yet with Paranormal Activity 2, the filmmakers seized an opportunity for a fitting parallel story that clearly and logically connected to the original film. They've managed to do that yet again, with Christopher Landon (one of PA2's three writers) giving us a prequel set in September 1988, when the sister protagonists of the first two movies are young girls.

While her sister sleeps, Kristi (Jessica Brown) has a little chat with her imaginary friend Toby at 3:32 in the morning.

The setting predates the prevalence of home security cameras and the modern impulse to visually document life. Fortunately for us, though, Dennis Wolf (Chris Smith) is a man ahead of his time. The wedding videographer has recently moved in with young single mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) and those two daughters, Katie (Chloe Csengrey) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown). Dennis' desire to make a sex tape with Julie sets things in motion this time around. Before the couple can get too hot and heavy, a considerable earthquake occurs. While reviewing the bedroom footage, Dennis spots something unusual on the tape. With encouragement from his buddy/assistant Randy (Dustin Ingram), he decides to set up some makeshift surveillance. One camera goes in the girls' bedroom, another in the grown-ups' bedroom, and a third makes use of an oscillating fan to slowly alternate views between the kitchen and the living room.

The filmmakers have done an admirable job of recreating the look of the late '80s, if not in the home decor than at least in the girls' toys -- most prominent of which is a nicely utilized Teddy Ruxpin -- and the family's fashions. Where they do not strive for authenticity is on the technical side and this is clearly a conscious decision with our interests in mind. Dennis' cameras are equipped with 6-hour tapes, which if he's changing them on schedule would add up to well over 100 videocassettes for the period covered, a believable enough supply considering his profession. Whatever cassettes he's using look pretty excellent for that long-play mode and oddly, they are also composed for and displayed in 1.78:1, some ten years before anyone gave that present-day HDTV standard any thought. In addition, Dennis has one of the steadiest hands to ever operate a camcorder and "he" gives us unbelievably clear access to candid family life, at least as edited by whoever it is that's supposed to have found and compiled these weeks of footage into standard feature film length. (In reality, the task is handled by PA2's Gregory Plotkin.)

It may seem foolish to take issue with such minutiae in what no one of sane mind and body could mistake for real found footage. But the illusion is integral to the series' success and the genre's general effectiveness. Name actors and conventional camera techniques would pull us out of this world instantly, and lapses in logic and obvious fakery would do the same. To date, the series has done a solid job of tacitly answering reasonable questions you might have and never asking you to believe in glaring CGI effects.

Reviewing footage at his editing bay, Dennis Wolf (Chris Smith) has a familiar conversation with his assistant about what "Back to the Future" should be titled. Sprague Grayden and Katie Featherston, the female leads of the first two movies, make a brief, early appearance from 2005 before turning the film over to their childhood selves.

The franchise thrives on its mundane depictions of domesticity. You may notice something like thirty-five minutes passing without so much as a genuine chill, but that legwork is essential to putting you in the right psychological mindset to appreciate the horror soon to be delivered. And appreciate it, you should. There are signs that the novelty of the series is wearing off, but Landon and directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (coming to this, appropriately enough, from the authenticity-questioned documentary Catfish) bring enough creativity to distinguish this from the previous two films and still put you on edge.

At a time when sequels abound and many exploit pre-existing goodwill, these Paranormal movies make the concerted effort needed to surprise you and scare you in unfamiliar ways while still upholding the principles and techniques at the original film's foundation. It was a difficult act to pull off once and they've now satisfactorily done it three times, "they" being the original film's mastermind Oren Peli and his fellow producers and original supporters, Steven Schneider and Jason Blum. As on PA2, they're joined here by longtime screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, whose executive producer credit still does not indicate the franchise going Hollywood.

Since the basic foundation is the same (young couple documents inexplicable household disturbances), the variables help to distinguish Paranormal Activity 3 from its predecessors. Where the previous films gave us a dog, a baby, and a teen, this one gives us two young girls, a rich target for horror. Not only that, but they are the younger selves of characters we have come to know (PA2's Sprague Grayden joins Katie Featherston in her now customary cameo in a bit of film-opening footage from "2005"). Knowing their destinies and having previously received some clues to their past (though none you need really remember in detail coming in) adds intrigue, as does the nicely realized period setting.

The advertised but deleted game of Bloody Mary played by Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Brown) is restored in the unrated director's cut.

Like the first two movies in the series, Paranormal Activity 3 is presented in both theatrical and unrated cuts on DVD and Blu-ray. Actually, the film makes its physical home video debut on Tuesday exclusively in a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack, the DVD of which only includes the "unrated director's [sic] cut." A theatrical cut-only DVD by itself will be released nationwide three weeks later, on Valentine's Day, with an individual unrated DVD remaining exclusive to Wal-Mart (outside of the combo pack covered here).

The extended cut runs 9 minutes and 51 seconds longer than the theatrical cut. Added scenes include: Dennis playing a prank on Randy, the two of them watching one of their wedding videos, a scene of the two young sisters playing Bloody Mary, a Night #7 checking around the house, and one bringing the girls inside from their backyard campout.
That is not enough to render the film very different and there is no alternate ending or anything. In fact, nearly the entire second half of the film appears to be unchanged. It's nice to have the option to view both cuts, but that seems to be more of a selling point than some conflicting artistic visions.

Paramount's low-risk fall tradition will continue with the scheduled October 19th theatrical release of Paranormal Activity 4.

Watch two scenes exclusive to the extended unrated director's cut:



Paranormal Activity 3: Unrated Director's Cut Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish, Portuguese, DVS)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish; Blu-ray Film only: English for Hearing Impaired
DVD Closed Captioned; Blu-ray Extras Subtitled
Release Date: January 24, 2012 / Suggested Retail Price: $44.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Also available in DVD Packaging ($44.99 SRP), Amazon Instant Video (Theatrical, Extended), and, beginning February 14, Theatrical Cut DVD ($26.99 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

As mentioned above, Paranormal Activity 3 doesn't do the best job at convincing us it was shot on 1980s consumer videocassettes, but that just makes the 1.78:1 widescreen presentation easier on us. The film is clearly shot on some kind of video, but not top-of-the-line digital at that. Thus, it doesn't take full advantage of 1080p resolution, but the picture still looks as clean, sharp, and detailed as it is meant to, without us encountering any unintended woe. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio is even less believable, that is to say it is practically up there with other new films. Sound is a huge part of these unscored films, in some ways a bigger part than the visuals. This mix does not disappoint with its discomforting rumbles and infrequent seat jump moments. The track can get very loud, but seemingly by design.

In sampling the combo pack's DVD, I found its anamorphic picture and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack satisfactory, despite the limited disc space afforded them.

On a Friday night just under a year ago, Paranormal Activity 2 was in use when my DVD player of several years died on me. I still hold the franchise partly responsible for my dearly departed 5-disc-changing friend. Fortunately, PA3 caused no such casualty; the worst I experienced was some lingering temporary burn-in on climactic black screen from the regularly featured white onscreen time/counter/dates.

Dennis Wolf (Chris Smith) promotes his wedding videography services in this amusingly cheesy, deleted 1980s-style local business commercial. If the menu is nothing more than white text on a black screen, chances are you've got a Paranormal Activity disc in your player. The combo pack DVD lacks the Blu-ray's Lost Tapes and alternate cut listings.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Honoring tradition and the found footage illusion, Paranormal Activity 3 has just one Blu-ray bonus feature besides its alternate cut and that is "Lost Tapes" (3:11), otherwise known as deleted scenes. Two items fall under that heading and both are quite entertaining, probably too entertaining to fit into the film itself. The first is a montage of Dennis scaring Julie and the second is Dennis' amateurish commercial for his wedding video business. Fun stuff!
It would be nice for the director's cut additions to be viewable on their own without rewatching the movie, but the series has never given us that option.

Though the film opens without studio logos or credits (when it does show a Paramount logo, it's niftily the '80s version before the closing scroll), the Blu-ray still identifies this as a 21st century studio feature film by playing a Paramount Home Entertainment logo and then trying to stream trailers before the silent, static nondescript menu of plain white text on black screens loads. I was treated to a jittery, low-def preview of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which cut out before it could finish. Later, my player got through both that and a trailer for The Devil Inside. The absence of PA3's own trailers, with their night vision audience reaction shots and unused scenes, is unfortunate, especially since Paramount had thought to include a teaser on PA2. Like other Paramount BDs, this one supports bookmarks, but doesn't resume playback in any fashion after your player turns off.

The two discs claim opposite sides of a standard slim eco-friendly Blu-ray case, which was without slipcover in my review copy despite what some online graphics indicated. The blue Blu-ray disc is hidden under the digital copy insert, which reveals it to be of the hip new UltraViolet variety. That means you can stream the movie to a variety of registered compatible devices relying on servers and services. Fortunately, the DVD also includes three hard copies (one iTunes format and two different WMV files) for transferring to your computer and gadgets. That makes it a lot more condonable that the DVD in this combo pack otherwise goes without extras, even if branching the unrated cut footage and including the lost tapes, foreign dubs, and always salient descriptive track should have easily been achieved with the more than 1 GB of space this falls under DVD-9 capacity.

At a tea party, Dennis (Chris Brown) asks Kristi (Jessica Brown) about her friend, not Teddy Ruxpin, but the invisible one. Attaching a camera to the base of an oscillating fan proves ingenious to creating suspense in an unprecedented manner. Watch out, Lisa the babysitter (Johanna Braddy)!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

That it follows two similar movies prevents Paranormal Activity 3 from the kind of attention and acclaim it'd get as a standalone film. But the franchise has remained surprisingly impervious to the quality declines most horror series experience. I suspect that this fall's installment won't draw crowds quite as big and if so, there may only be another movie or two to get out of this brand and concept. Thus far, it's been a fun ride, the most fun and unsettling of any in recent horror cinema. It's easy to recommend a viewing, especially if you enjoyed the two previous movies. Those collecting the franchise should be satisfied with Paramount's combo pack that arrives in the same minimalist fashion as the two before it.

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Related Reviews:
Found Footage Films: Paranormal Activity 2 Cloverfield The Last Exorcism
2011 Horror Movies: Insidious Don't Be Afraid of the Dark Fright Night Shark Night The Rite
New to Blu-ray: The Ides of March Contagion Real Steel Traffic (Criterion Collection) Good Morning, Vietnam
1980s Horror: Poltergeist The Shining Child's Play Cujo Something Wicked This Way Comes The Watcher in the Woods

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Reviewed January 21, 2012.



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