Paranormal Activity 4
Directed by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Screenplay by Christopher Landon
Katie Featherston, Kathryn Newton, Brady Allen
How long is Paranormal Activity 4? 88 minutes.
What is Paranormal Activity 4 rated? R for language and some violence/terror.
Keep A-Knockin’ But You Can’t Commit
It is almost Halloween, which means time for one more Paranormal Activity at least. This year the ghost train (or demonorail) has broken out of Carlsbad and turned up in lovely suburban Nevada. Apart from that, little has changed. In most respects, this franchise has even gone back a few paces. So much for the train metaphor.
For those who came in late: Paranormal Activity is the continuing saga of a family whose long history with the occult has led to a spate of possessions, polter-violence, and vigilant home surveillance. Series creator and producer Oren Peli constructed the concept around handily placed cameras capturing “true life” hauntings with a seemingly bottomless barrel of visual tricks. Now, however, one can hear distinct scraping sounds as the bottom comes into view.
It all started with Katie (Katie Featherston), who is now playing host to demonic forces and was last seen snatching her sister Kristi’s infant son as part of some Satanic blood pact. After two films about the same obnoxious family circle, the series took a well-advised jump into the past. Part 3 detailed how little Katie and Kristi grew up in the shadow of dark, malevolent forces. That whole movie is one hell of a recovered memory, deepening the gravity and mystery of the then-trilogy with its bleak themes and clever staging. It still has no place among the classics, but things seemed to be looking up.
Now, at last, comes Part 4, wherein a delightful new cast runs aground on a half-baked plot. Perky, Nancy Drew-like Alex (Kathryn Newton) is a regular teen without too many problems. Her parents are cordially on the rocks, but she gets along fine with her little brother Wyatt and her endearingly boneheaded boyfriend Ben. All seems well until a haggard little blond child shows up in the backyard uninvited. This is Robbie (Brady Allen), who has just moved in across the street with his mother (possibly from the Village Of The Damned). He is on his own a lot, and soon comes to stay with Alex’s family “just for a little while.”
Before long, Robbie displays a penchant for creeping around at night and generally behaving in a secretive and sinister manner. Alex, determined to keep an eye on the weird little lodger, contrives with Ben’s help to monitor the house with a network of video chat-enabled laptop computers. This supplants the home security system of Part 2 and the miscellaneous video geekery of Parts 1 and 3, and when the whole house has been set up for monitoring in sectors, everything basically starts to look the same as it always has.
Naturally, Robbie’s fiendish agenda hinges in some way on his befriending Wyatt and cultivating an influence over his behavior. It all has to do with the gruesome tale of Katie and her kin. In time, we will learn many things about Robbie and his designs on Wyatt, though not nearly enough. Withholding satisfactory answers rather petulantly, this movie leaves too much unexplained without guaranteeing our interest in coming back for Part 5.
Despite the presence of a better cast and a genuine attempt to invest the story with dramatic context and real family drama, the scares in Paranormal Activity 4 revert to the primitive, repetitious format that barely got us through the original film. We focus on an empty room… then another… then back to the first room… and so on in this fashion until something huge and invisible knocks on the wall, or tears down a shelf. At other times, we follow a character through the house in the dark, straining to perceive what might be about to happen, until something invisible grabs and hurls them into a wall. Lacking as they were in substance, the second and third films did their best to innovate and vary the spooky moments. The most inspired bits of these movies are the scenes in which tiny supernatural things happen as the characters’ backs are turned, signaling bad things and often misdirecting the audience for a sucker punch. Here, as in the first film, there is too much reliance on knocking, banging, thudding, and other two-bit jump scares. This movie is not completely unscary, but there is a lot of blank space where there should be rooms full of heart-exploding dread.
In keeping with the traditional pace of the series, Paranormal Activity 4 does not heat up until the last half, and does not boil until the final fifteen minutes or so. Those who still pay to see these films have put in enough time staring at empty bedrooms and kitchens, waiting for the first telltale bump or rustle in the sheets. There is no longer any reason to spend the first act establishing what normal life for the victim family looks like. Part 4 goes to greater lengths than its predecessors to sketch sympathetic, rounded characters, but none of these relationships is sufficiently complex to warrant more than two minutes of exposition and one good joke per character. That is a generous estimate, because the only really important question is what horrific supernatural fate will befall each of them.
The best and highest function of a Paranormal Activity movie is as a group Halloween game for audiences to play together in crowded theaters. Without the gasps, screams, nervous laughs, and even shouted warnings of one’s fellow patrons, the experience of picking out suspicious noises and spotting eerie details would grow unbearably dull in quite a short time. Such heavy reliance on audience participation is a neat concept, but not a very practical one for a film presumably intended to rake in lots of its revenue from home video sales. These movies could stand soundly on their own merits, but only if they were much, much scarier. This would be easy to achieve if they simply began as energetically as they invariably end.