[Paranormal Activity 4
Written & Directed by Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman
Starring: Kathryn Newton, Matt Shively, and Katie Featherston
MPAA: R – For Language and Some Violence/Terror]
Most horror franchises wear out their welcome and start to become crap usually when they reach their second or third installment, but I’ve been legitimately surprised by how well the Paranormal Activity series’ formula has endured. They aren’t great horror films by any means (Though the first film is arguable), but they’re effective at what they do, and the way these films really get the audience to get seriously invested and reactive to the events using slow-building tension and suspense is an undeniably impressive feat. The first film is still the series’ high point, a perfect marriage of simplicity and atmosphere, but Paranormal Activity 3 is a close second behind it, with a much more effective climax and some ingenious set-pieces. The 2nd installment is quite good too, but had the problem of focusing too much on the payoff and not enough on the actual waiting.
Still, though, I was surprisingly enjoying myself throughout this series, and I was interested in seeing what they had in the cards for the fourth installment, which is the first time the series has reused a director from the previous installment (In this case, pair of directors, Joost and Schulman, who worked on the third film). Does Paranormal Activity 4 manage to continue its consistent winning streak, or does it finally succumb to laziness and exhaustion?
Well, while Paranormal Activity 4 is by no means “terrible”, it is definitely the worst and laziest installment in the franchise to date. Even if you weren’t a fan of the other sequels, there was no denying a sense of cleverness and ingenuity in the scares, like the third film’s oscillating-fan camera for example. There are some moments of that in this one, but it takes way too long to get to those moments, and there’s not enough of them to keep you invested.
So, for those of you confused with how this sequel is placed in the non-linear timeline, Paranormal Activity 4 is actually the first truly direct sequel in the series so far, taking place a little after where the second film left off (The third film was a prequel). We see things through the cameras of a family in Nevada who’ve gotten some…interesting new neighbors, to say the least. Living in the house across the street is Robbie, a creepy kid lifted straight out of The Omen with a blank, emotionless stare and the archetypal creepy imaginary friend. Noticing something’s really off with the kid, who’s been sleeping in their house because his mother is sick, the teenager daughter Alex and her boyfriend Ben decide to hack all the family’s computers to record everything through their webcams 24/7. Creepy stuff doth ensue.
What I didn’t reveal in that synopsis is that right away, in the very first frames of the film, is one of the main problems with this installment: There’s literally no reason for the events in this film to be “recorded”. The first three films, especially the third, definitely had contrived reasons for why everything had to be documented, but at least there was a reason, and at least they put forth the effort to attempt explaining it. If there is a reason for the recording in PA4, it’s either not explained very well or entirely nonexistent, and it’s most likely the latter. Of all the leaps of logic you have to take in a found-footage film, the question of “why they’re recording” is one of the most important, and refusing to give an explanation immediately struck me of laziness.
This becomes especially egregious when we get to the computer-hacking, which is brought up in the most odd and uncomfortable way possible. Alex’s boyfriend, Ben, has a thing on his computer (It isn’t really explained whether this is a glitch or a program) that causes his computer to record everything on someone else’s webcam. This means that, because this family conveniently never closes their laptops, he would have footage of his girlfriend just sleeping in the middle of the night. Creepy, yes, but he insists that he doesn’t use it for stalking purposes of any sort. However, things get a little more off when he suggests hacking all the family laptops to have the same recording effect. This seems like it could be used as an interesting way to comment on voyeurism and what crosses that line, but nope. Now we’re recording in blue-tinted night-vision just like the first three films while barely commenting on the fact that there’s something sort of immoral to what they’re doing.
To the movie’s credit, though, the rest of the characters aren’t entirely unlikable. Just really stupid. Aside from the obvious voyeuristic tendencies of the teenagers and the creepiness of the young children, I haven’t seen a horror movie that suffered from this bad a case of inattentive parent syndrome in quite a while. There are clear moments when Alex is trying to explain how things are wrong and creepy, and both the mother and father dismiss her in the most unrealistic and contrived ways possible. The absolute nadir of this aspect of the film is when Alex and Ben literally show the father footage from the other night that clearly suggests something weird is going on, and his response is, and I kid you not, “You silly kids, with your video editing software, and your Adobe After Effects!” A man this oblivious clearly has his mind in bizarro world.
Despite these problems, once the movie moves on from the set-up and starts delivering scares that are built on visual gimmickry, it improves a great deal. Not all of them are strong. One of the gimmicks, which is the implementation of Microsoft’s Kinect, is cool at first, but once you’ve seen what it can do once, it’s already old the next twenty thousand times. Also, it doesn’t help that the characters mention the Kinect in the most blatant expression of product-placement possible. “Hey, you kids playing XBOX KINECT?” Yeah.
But there are a few pretty strong and novel tricks up the filmmakers’ sleeves. The best one out of all of them is one I dare not give away. All I will reveal is that it ingeniously involves a knife and the two scenes that it’s used in were the only two that got me so tense my jaw was on the floor. There are a few other good ones, but getting into detail with them would lose the surprise for those of you that plan on seeing it.
The acting is quite solid, too. The series has had a knack for casting nicely naturalistic no-name actors that enhance the “realism” of the found-footage conceit, and while the acting in this installment feels a little more “scripted” this time around, it’s still not bad in the slightest. The child actors are especially effective, even though they aren’t given much to do outside of “stare at things menacingly”.
However, it was hard for me to get invested in the scares and the acting not just because of the characters, but because of some obvious plot-holes that either reek of laziness or sequel set-up. Now, the other two sequels were admittedly confusing, but once you put the odd, time-jumping structure together in your head, it at the very least made some amount of sense. PA4 has some details that not only make no sense on a continuity level, they also just make no sense in the realms of logic.
Then, there’s the climax. Each of the films have really strong climaxes, the third being the peak form in this regard. Here, it’s tense in the moment, but there isn’t enough build-up to it and it’s so short that it doesn’t leave an impact when you leave the theater. Plus, like the rest of the plot, it doesn’t make much sense and the final image is conjured up solely for sequel implications.
And yet, despite all these problems I had with the movie…I still had a fun enough time. The weird thing about the Paranormal Activity series is that it, for some reason, seems to get the audience heavily involved in what’s happening on-screen. My audience jumped, audibly screamed, laughed, and just reacted to everything in ways you don’t see in any other horror film. Even though I found Sinister to be a much, much stronger October-released horror flick, the audience didn’t react with the film the same way they did in Paranormal Activity 4. It’s a very fun communal experience. It falls flat on its face when viewed alone on DVD, but in a dark room with a large crowd, it’s fun despite its weaknesses.
Final Verdict: Easily the weakest entry in the series, Paranormal Activity 4‘s build-up is too uninteresting, unconvincing, and illogical to make the various payoffs really land. A few effective scares here and there, and one or two that are downright brilliant, but the rest is just stuff you’ve seen done better in various horror films, including the last three installments in the series. Unless you’re seeing this with drunken friends or a large crowd, this one should be skipped.
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See ya next time! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go an–CAAAAAT!!