Continuing its prequel direction, the ‘found footage’ of the Paranormal Activity franchise goes back to the 1980’s with spooky sisters Katie & Kristi now young girls, haunted by an invisible force that shakes, rattles and blows. With its trademark silences and long waits as locked-off cameras reveal strange disturbances, it’s a strong installment for the series where things steadily get bumpier in the night.
Cleverly written so that you don’t need to have seen the two prior films, this one is set in the days of VHS and brown furnishings. Yes, it’s 1988 and young sisters Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) live with their mum Julie (Lauren Bittner) and her new boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicolas-Smith). He fortunately runs a wedding video business, meaning he has plenty of cameras to install in their rambling house when noises, groans and moving objects start to unsettle the young girls.
It’s a very slow build with plenty of hand-held footage at the start, as we get to know the family home-video style and pick up tiny bits of information that nonchalantly seem to add up to something ominous. It’s this ingenious casual drip-feed of the narrative that makes the film work (as long as you don’t mind the long takes of surveillance-style footage) with Kristi’s invisible friend Toby the main mystery. Dennis’ video business colleague Randy (Dustin Ingram) joins in the spooking, supplying Dennis with some books on demonology and the critical information that the nasty force in the cupboard feeds on your fear. (He then foolishly locks himself in the bathroom with one of the girls and turns the lights out! I mean, hasn’t he seen a horror film before?)
Don’t be fooled by the “home-video” look of the film: the staging and editing is highly sophisticated and the special effects used sparingly and precisely as the tension ratchets to a surprising ending. The performances from the two young leads – particularly the hollow-eyed Jessica Tyler-Brown as Kristie – are eerily naturalistic, and everyone does nicely casual in keeping with the style – until the lights go out, that is. New directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman team up with writer Christopher Landon (who wrote the second part of the series) to create a tightly controlled piece of cinema right on time for the Halloween season.