Paranormal Activity 4
Directed by: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Written by: Christopher Landon (screenplay), Chad Feehan (story)
Starring: Katie Featherston, Kathryn Newton, Matt Shively, Brady Allen
Back in 2009, when Paramount decided to debut Oren Peli’s no budget indie film Paranormal Activity in select theatres, I don’t think anyone expected it to turn into a six hundred million dollar movie franchise. And yet, in retrospect, it makes complete sense. In this age of instant gratification, the movie boils horror down to its bare essentials, loosely tying together a series of increasingly tense scenes with the only the faintest hint of a plot. The movie quite literally fast-forwards to the good parts, mainlining visceral thrills and chills while skipping past all the filler.
Three years later, we’ve already arrived at a fourth installment. The low budget nature of the series allows for an extremely quick turnaround time, making it all too easy to churn out shoddy sequels. However, despite the somewhat repetitive formula, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish) were able to inject some new ideas and an intriguing back story into Paranormal Activity 3, proving that the premise might actually be capable of supporting a long-term franchise. Can they continue to surprise with their next installment or does Paranormal Activity 4 simply fall back into all-too familiar rhythms?
Paranormal Activity 4 returns to the present day, more or less, picking up ten years after the events of Paranormal Activity 2. Katie has kidnapped Kristi’s son Hunter and their whereabouts remain unknown. We are introduced to a new family, unconnected to any of the victims in the previous films. Alice (Kathryn Newton) and her little brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) find that strange things start happening in their home when Robbie (Brady Allen), the kid from across the street, is forced to come to live with them for a few days. His mother supposedly had an accident, but Alice starts to get suspicious and mounts an investigation with the help of her boyfriend, Alex.
While the previous installments have focused on the idea of setting up cameras around a house to capture spooky happenings, this time around the cameras are actually computers. Early on, Alex decides to set up all of the laptops in the house to start recording footage (conveniently, they seem to have one in every room). One of the benefits of this is that it allows for the use of Skype or Facetime with a helpless viewer on the other end seeing exactly what the audience sees. However, it also leads to some moments where it’s a little hard to believe that Alice is carrying an open laptop around with her.
One of the clever devices they added in the last film was a camera attached to an oscillating fan. This time around their new gimmick is the Microsoft Kinect. They leave it turned on in the living room for most of the movie, and when seen through a webcam’s infrared filter, the tracking dots theoretically reveal invisible movement in the room. It seems like a very promising idea, but overall it ends up being a bit of a bust, only really coming into play towards the end of the film.
As the trailers have hinted, this movie is sort of inspired by The Omen, although it doesn’t quite go where you expect it to. Brady Allen does not play Robbie as your typical brooding force of evil, but more of a weirdo instead. He wears socks with his sandals. He sneaks into Alice’s bed in the middle of the night without her knowing. In a not so subtle nod to The Shining, he rides a big wheel tricycle around the house. He’s a loner and prefers to play alone, but he also happens to have an “imaginary friend.” If you’ve seen the last film, you probably know who that is.
While Brady Allen’s performance avoids some cliches, the problem is that it comes across a bit goofy. Indeed, one of the big differences this time around is that there’s a lot more comic relief in the film. Matt Shively reminded me of a louder, more obnoxious Michael Cera, and at first his wisecracking kind of bugged me. I gradually warmed up to him, but introducing humour into this series has an adverse effect because it makes audiences more likely to laugh at things they’re supposed to take seriously. It also waters down the formula a bit, creating more downtime in the film.
That might have been a welcome respite if there weren’t already so many editing tricks and false scares peppered throughout the film. I enjoyed the playfulness of some of these tricks in the last film, but here it feels like Joost and Schulman are beating around the bush for far too long without truly building up tension. The movie does not sustain periods of suspense for very long and seems to be composed of a lot of random three minute chunks cobbled together in haphazard fashion. That’s not to say there aren’t a few effective scenes here and there; the garage scene is pretty intense and the movie concludes with another memorable finale that once again brings to mind The Blair Witch Project. Unfortunately, it’s too little too late.
I am also not a big fan of Katie Featherston in her new role. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Katie is no longer a victim and has instead become one of the villains. Unfortunately, she was never cast in the first film with this in mind and I don’t think she’s quite up to the task. I don’t necessarily think it’s her fault; I just don’t find her scary at all. The story also seems to be getting pretty muddled at this point, but after seeing what happened to the Saw series, that should probably come as a surprise to no one.
If it sounds like I was disappointed with Paranormal Activity 4, that’s because I was. However, the movie does stay true to many of the key elements that made the previous films so effective and should be somewhat salvageable for existing fans. I’ll give Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman credit for trying some new things, unfortunately they just didn’t pan out this time. The need to continually up the ante and add more back story is slowly stripping away the subtlety that the previous films had, and I fear that the longevity of the series has become the sole priority. Then again, I thought this series was doomed after part 2 and was happy to be proven wrong. PA4 is a misstep for sure, but I certainly won’t be writing off the franchise just yet. — Sean
Recommended If You Like: Paranormal Activity, The Omen, The Last Exorcism