A big bump in the night

What writers of films such as "Paranormal 3" understand is that audiences possess in their DNA a belief that no matter the laws of the physical world, no matter that the baseline for understanding the world rests with scientific explanations, there exists a realm beyond the evidence. Folklore and history are replete with testimonials concerning the paranormal. Or call it the supernatural.

The genius of exceptional paranormal films resides in making the setting and the people appear completely "normal," all within the realm of human experience. In "PA 3," it's a two-story tract house in Carlsbad, Calif., inhabited by an average family: mom, Julie (Lauren Bittner); dad, Dennis (Christopher Nicolas Smith); and their two young girls, Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown).

Theirs is a familiar life, even mundane; however, the filmmakers are now about to give the setup a serious twist. And how that's achieved is brilliant.

Because Dennis is a videographer, when he hears something go bump in the night, he sets up three cameras in the house: one in his and Julie's room, one in the girls' bedroom, and one in the kitchen. To get a wider, panning shot of the downstairs area, he mounts the camera on the base of an old fan, causing the camera to oscillate slowly.

Suddenly the point of view of the film is through the lens of these three cameras, eerily detached and yet intimate. Dennis lets them run all night, and the audience observes the parents and girls sleeping while the cameras record time and speed.

And so the film begins to incrementally build a sense of dread. One night, Kristi, only 6, crawls out of bed and has a conversation with someone. She says it's her "imaginary" friend, Toby. During the day, Dennis begins to watch the footage and is initially curious and then disturbed.

Something is occurring in the house. It's palpable. There is an unseen, ominous presence. And so the audience begins watching intently what the cameras record, in real time, searching every image for any hint that something is strange or amiss.

The tension is nicely ratcheted up as the nights pass, one after the other, the house silent, everyone sleeping, the red glowing camera lights glowing. Wait! Did you see that? What's that? Was that Kristi darting past the bedroom door?

It's remarkable how effective this filming technique is, while imperceptibly nudging the belief in the paranormal to the fore — it's so uneventful and yet so terrifying.

"PA 3" is the third installment in the franchise. And perhaps the best of the lot. Like "PA 1," it doesn't rely on what can be called fright-flick, slasher-porn using over-the-top gore and dismemberment to graphically shock the audience ("The Hills Have Eyes," "Saw," "Wrong Turn"). It's far harder to create a subtle yet riveting film that raises goose bumps if not hair follicles, offering at least one good jolt of electricity along the way.

This is stylized filmmaking, illustrating that not every nail requires a hammer.

The Three Muskateers

Alexandre Dumas' 1844 classic, "The Three Musketeers," is a remarkable tale of swashbuckling adventure. Hollywood immediately saw its big-screen potential, hence the story has had numerous incarnations, a few very well done. Alas, this latest version is not one of them.

Again, it's all about the writing and so, despite the rich production — great costumes, wonderful floating airships (huge square riggers looking like massive dirigibles) and a not-disappointing cast — the script seems flat, absent real tension.

At the center are Aramis (Matthew MacFadyen), Porthos (Ray Stevenson), Athos (Luke Evans) and their young Musketeer intern, D'Artagnan, who shows up on the family plow horse with his father's old Musketeer sword.

In this 19th century tale, most post-puberty males are armed with swords, hence sword fights are the equivalent of a pickup game of basketball, meaning there is a lot of stabbing and thrusting, and not to forget leaping. Lots of leaping.

There is a nefarious plot afoot, planned by Cardinal Richelieu (Christoph Waltz) of King Louis' palace. The Musketeers, now four, are naturally drawn into this Baroque intrigue with Milady de Winter (Milla Jovovich), agent extraordinaire, playing England against France against England.

The intended demographic is tween-teen boys who will love the balloon scenes, high-tech flying machines with retro canons and the pure athleticism of the Musketeers, who are casually fearless. The plot and acting are immaterial; however, there is an interesting aside. The 19th-century futuristic technology is known as "steampunk," meaning originating in a time of Victorian steam power. The dirigibles, wonderfully imagined, are elements of science fiction/fantasy and made a seamless though audacious part of the film.

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