An American horror story does what it wants. 

The Paranormal Activity franchise is one of contemporary American cinema's most impressive success stories. Made for $15,000, Oren Peli's 2009 thriller about a guy and a girl tormented by supernatural forces earned $182 million worldwide. Peli hasn't directed the film's two sequels, but his producer credit on Paranormal Activity 2 and Paranormal Activity 3 guarantees that he gets a cut of the box office. And last weekend, Paranormal Activity 3 topped $54 million at the box office.

Like its predecessors, the third Paranormal Activity film looks like a found-footage compilation of a family that is gradually torn apart by something very wicked. Also like its predecessors, Paranormal Activity 3 is admirably lean and shrewdly, self-consciously artless. Because each installment sets up stationary cameras around the house to capture visual proof of whatever it is that is terrorizing these families, the filmmakers get to develop a couple of scary set pieces while eliminating any fussy directorial decisions about camera placement.

In an unusual twist, though, each new film goes backward in time, building from the original by expanding and tweaking its vague mythology. Thus, Paranormal Activity 3 offers a craftily edited account of the 1988 haunting that doomed sisters Katie (Katie Featherston) and Kristi Rey (Sprague Grayden), both mentioned in the two previous films.

By now the series' stylistic and narrative conventions are so ingrained that when they appear, they click into place like satanic little Legos. Once the camcorder's telltale date- and time-stamp appears over a shot of someone's bedroom, the shocks themselves progress geometrically and inevitably from noises that go bump in the night to full-on demonic possession.

One of the most underrated contributions to these films' success is its low-key cast. Playing the blandest types imaginable, mom (Lauren Bittner), her boyfriend (Christopher Nicholas Smith), and the two little girls (Chloe Csengery as young Katie and Jessica Brown as young Kristi Rey) are always un-self-conscious and naturalistic. So when a game of "Bloody Mary" goes horribly wrong, the panic feels far more earned than it is in slicker horror films.

And miraculously, each film has improved upon the previous one in some way. Paranormal Activity 2 filled out its cast by giving its besieged husband and wife a dog, a teenage daughter, and a baby, and its climactic basement sequence was the series' first example of sustained tension. Paranormal Activity 3 is the installment that supplies the most jolts. There are about a dozen leap-out-of-your-seat moments here. But the finished product still feels like a draft of better things to come.

Paranormal Activity 3
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Paranormal Activity 3
Rated R · 81 min. · 2011
Official Site: www.paranormalmovie.com
Director: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Writer: Michael R. Perry and Oren Peli
Cast: Katie Featherston and Zayd Jaber

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