It would be no exaggeration to say that we spend the 89 minutes of Paranormal Activity 3 waiting taut with tension to see a face. Not just any face, mind you. A face of nightmare terror and shivery awe, one that will shoot a scary volt of revelation right through us. We're never entirely sure if that face is going to arrive, but the anticipation is everything. The movie sets us up for it early on, with an amazing shock as a closet door is opened. Of course, we're also waiting because, with two other Paranormal Activity films behind it, Paranormal Activity 3 implicitly understands that we've been through enough tricks in these movies the doors that open and slam shut, the thuds and booms and scratchy skitters on the soundtrack, the kitchen utensils that fall with a crash, the spectral shapes that you can almost make out to now want to see something more. Paranormal Activity 3 features variations on every one of the tricks I just mentioned, and a few additional ones (they all work), but more than the first two films, it tweaks our desire to put a face on evil.
The movie is a prequel, set in September 1988, though it doesn't exactly look like an '80s period piece. The spacious, high-ceilinged Carlsbad, Calif., tract home in which it takes place looks a lot like the one in the more contemporary Paranormal Activity 2, with tastefully bland furniture that might have come out of the Raymour & Flanigan suburban-gothic collection. This time, the family consists of Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith, who's like a skinny young Gary Dell'Abate), a wedding videographer who has banks of monitors and editing equipment in his home studio; his big-haired sexy wife, Julie (Lauren Bittner); and her two preteen daughters from a previous marriage. They are Katie (Chloe Csengery), who will grow up to be the Katie Featherstone character in the first film, and angel-faced Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown), from Paranormal Activity 2, here an enigmatic child who can communicate with the spirit world. It's one of this haunted-house movie's best jokes that the ghost on hand is Kristi's invisible friend, ''Toby,'' whom she talks to with a mixture of intimacy and intimidated formality.
As soon as the family begins to hear mysterious sounds in their new home, Dennis insists on rigging up a handful of video cameras as makeshift surveillance devices. We get time-coded views of the parents' and kids' bedrooms and, most cleverly, there's a camera mounted on the base of a rotating fan that pans back and forth, with fearful deliberation, from the kitchen, with its pristine white cabinets, to the living room, with its creepy looped lamp in the foreground. The directors, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, are the fascinatingly deadpan pranksters who made Catfish, last year's is-it-a-documentary-or-a-rigged-stunt? investigation into the fake identities that people can forge on the Internet. They turn out to be the perfect filmmakers to create a banal surface reality that's just warped enough to keep us on tenterhooks.
The bottom line, for me, is this: I don't scare easily at horror films (that's one of the reasons I tend to pan them), but I watched Paranormal Activity 3 in a state of high anxiety. Schulman and Joost have fun with the archetypal image of a white-sheeted costume ghost, but mostly what they're aces at is timing. They know just how to thread a handheld camera up the stairs, down a hallway, and into the scattered bric-a-brac of a middle-class children's bedroom, settling at just the right moment upon a talking teddy bear that plays as a joke, even as a part of you momentarily thinks: Is that bear possessed? They also make terrific use of characters like Dennis's assistant, a Napoleon Dynamite type, played with an infectious spark by Dustin Ingram, who ends up huddling in a darkened bathroom with young Katie for a scary game of ''Bloody Mary'' (say it three times and wait to see what happens). There's no denying that the Paranormal Activity films adhere, by now, to a formula; this one, almost by definition, lacks the originality that made the first one so startling. But when you consider how the grimy, mangle-fest Saw sequels have ruled the Halloween season in recent years, it's refreshing to think that the spook-show franchise that has now caught the popular imagination has replaced depravity and sadism with a 21st-century, video-reality version of old-school campfire shivers. In her review of The Shining, Pauline Kael asked derisively ''Who wants to see evil in daylight, through a wide-angle lens?'' The answer, it turns out, is everybody. A-