Review: “Paranormal Activity 4”

Since it began, the “Paranormal Activity” franchise has followed a fairly predictable path – the first was one of those low-budget, better than average student film throwaways that for some reason became wedged in the cultural zeitgeist. It was a simple premise, fairly smart with its scares, and it offered a welcome antidote to the increasingly tired “Saw” franchise.

Whereas that series had grown to mistake needless convolution for intelligent writing and graphic sadism for effective scares, the refreshing emphasis on minimalist atmosphere and suspense in PA1 were a welcome change. The second film however made the mistake of many a horror series before it – introducing a convoluted back story about haunted relatives, demons seeking first born sons, and throwing in a bunch of new characters who frankly weren’t much chop.

The third film proved a pleasant surprise as “Catfish” helmers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman came onboard and shook things up in all the right ways. This included a well-realised 80’s prequel setting, a better cast, moments of humor, clever new camera tricks (such as the oscillating fan scene), and an outright crazy last fifteen minutes. Perhaps the most common debate that will be had by fans coming out of this fourth chapter though is which is worse – this or the second one.

The most obvious way in which PA4 is a disappointment is that it feels like a hold over entry, a breather between more interesting chapters in a larger story. With the entire Katie and her family backstory played out, this film had nowhere to go but serve as a sequel to the first two films. With the only returning characters available being the possessed Katie and a baby, the filmmakers decided to move the action forward a few years and basically deliver the story of a new family growing increasingly haunted shortly after the arrival of new neighbours across the street (Katie and kid).

This was the perfect time to deliver a minor reboot to the franchise, shake-up some of the predictable patterns while answering some lingering questions from the last film like what was with all those old women in desperate need of a good moisturiser? Sadly Joost and Schulman fail to exploit the opportunity, falling back on overly familiar gimmicks and fairly conventional scares that reek of a lack of imagination.

The filming techniques may have shifted to webcams rather than handhelds or security cams, but it’s still the same old tricks. There’s a fairly decent twist at one point, the odd good jump, and a similar ‘what the hell’ style ending to that of the third one (albeit more expected now). However we’re again left with more questions than answers.

The big new gimmick this time out, and something far more frightening than any deliberate scare in the series thus far, is the Microsoft product placement. The Xbox Kinect uses hundreds of laser tracking sensors that, when viewed through an infrared camera, turn a living room into a giant starfield. It’s an arresting sight to see and yields one of the films few imaginative moments involving a moving human shape within the field. Unfortunately it’s overused and has long worn out its novelty value by the end.

Looking and acting like a more believably human version of Dakota Fanning, Kathryn Newton is a fun teen female lead who refreshingly acts like a teenager rather than a hyper self-aware thirty-something. She, and her occasionally amusing horny geek boyfriend (Matt Shively) dominate proceedings and their company is the only thing that keeps us engaged through the slower than usual buildup in this outing. There are parent characters but they’re so ancillary they may as well not exist, and the two young kids spend most of their time talking nonsense to thin air.

I admit I’m not a good person to review a film like this. Due to its found footage approach and contemporary setting, the scares in these films depend far more on one’s belief in the paranormal than a classic ghost story. As an atheist who doesn’t believe in ghosts, the scares have no effect on me aside from the occasional mild jump of surprise more than terror.

Also, though I’d seen the first film years ago, I re-watched it and the next two for the first time only the other week. Thus the films kind of blend together for me and I can’t see a drastic difference in quality between each entry. All four films have played out like mildly enjoyable diversions I only need to see once. The only one I would honestly watch again would be the third one, and even it I’m in no hurry to see.

Thus why this one is being targeted for such heavy criticism whereas the others scored far gentler dismissals I can’t quite figure. There’s a distinct sense people who were actually caught up in and scared by the previous films are finally seeing these for the pleasantly silly pantomimes they really are and are overreacting in anger. Shame really, I certainly found it more agreeable than the second one.