Directed by Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost. Produced by Oren Peli, Jason Blum, Steven Schneider. Screenplay by Christopher Landon; story by Chad Feehan; based upon the motion picture Paranormal Activity by Oren Peli. Photographed by Doug Emmett. Edited by Gregory Plotkin. Production designed by Jennifer Spence. Starring Katie Featherston, Kathryn Newton, Sprague Grayden, Matt Shively, Brady Allen, Stephen Dunham, Alexondra Lee, Brian Boland, Aiden Lovekamp.
This is it folks; the ride is over. Paranormal Activity 4 is a prime example of what happens when a franchise loses every scrap of its inspiration but insists on moving forward. That’s not surprising, given that the original’s meager starting point was “camcorder footage vs. a loud house.” But still, it’s disappointing to see such crass, bloody-minded commercialism so nakedly at work here. PA4 is the barest minimum of product, a movie that’s designed merely to connect previous installments to future installments, with no regard whatsoever to the viewers who are coming for this installment in the vain hope of having a good time. It’s a sequel that adds nothing except a reiteration of tortured mythology, a repackaging of all-too-familiar characters, and the strangest Xbox product placement I’ve ever seen. All of this is combined to make an audience feel like they’ve seen a movie, when in actuality it’s a fresh coat of paint on a car that’s seen better days.
I say this as a fan—kinda. I thought Paranormal Activity (2009) was a breath of fresh air in the found footage genre, a genre I generally like but have grown impatient with lately. Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) was a rehash, but at least it added a neat moral quandary to the supernatural shenanigans. Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) was maybe the best of the series, as it prequel-ized the series and yet tied up some loose ends, and was blessed with decent child acting and some neat visual tricks. But now we’re at movie four, which is a tired wheeze in search of purpose. The filmmakers are Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, returning from #3, who also made the mockumentary Catfish (2010). They are experts at manufacturing events for a documentary camera, but here they seem downright bored. Can’t say I blame them.
The story? Spoiler: it’s the same movie as the others. Once again a demonic presence starts trouble in a spacious west coast home. The original took place in San Diego, then we moved to southern California. Now we’re somewhere in Nevada. You may recall (or you may not) that Katie Featherston (playing herself?) and her sister (Sprague Grayden) were terrorized by a demon as children and adults. There was a reason for that: something about witches and a bargain with the devil, which involves Katie’s nephew Hunter. The details are kind of vague, which is probably for the best. Now here in Nevada, Katie shows up again, still possessed by a demon (we presume), now neighbor to a new family. There’s Alex (Kathryn Newton), her little brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), and their two parents (Stephen Dunham, Alexondra Lee). One night Katie is rushed to the hospital and the family takes care of her son, Robbie (Brady Allen). Who the hell’s Robbie? What happened to Hunter? Nevermind. Robbie’s temporary change of address turns into a very bad idea, naturally.
Alex is the lead, nominally. In a Paranormal Activity movie, that means she’s the only one who’s noticing that chandeliers are moving on their own, and kitchen knives are disappearing, and basketballs are bouncing themselves. She reminds me of the teenage girl Ali (Molly Ephraim) from Paranormal 2, who when last seen was buried in a text crawl about how she came home to find her parents murdered. Bummer. Anyway, Alex notices these supernatural occurances to her parents, who are useless. Man, parents just don’t understand. So Alex and her boyfriend (Ben) deploy a series of cameras to watch over the house: multiple laptops, an HD Skype monitor, an old-fashioned camcorder. Even the Xbox gets in on the action by throwing motion tracking dots all over the living room which are picked up on infrared. Why the parents (who are not advised on the setup) do not notice that multiple pieces of expensive electronics are left on all night is completely unexplained.
The series’ bread and butter is the operating cameras that feed into the “found footage” aesthetic that contrives (or belabors) the suspense. If a good old-fashioned omnipotent cameraman came in he’d show us what’s what in a hurry. The second film had security cameras, the third brilliantly showed a father McGyvering a VHS cam to an oscillating fan. This one is the most rote expression of the gag, a clear indicator that they’re running out of ideas. Not only is the elaborate setup not efficiently satisfied by the drama, but after a while the movie sloppily forgets its own conceit. It’s no spoiler to say that astonishing things are caught on camera this time around, and yet at no point after the film’s first twenty minutes does anyone actually go back and scan the overnight footage, let alone show it to a skeptic. These people are idiots, which I guess helps out the screenplay. After all, if the family did the sensible thing and went to a hotel, the filmmakers would have to rent another soundstage.
The demon keeps banging into things and throwing objects around, either because he’s an inept prankster or because he’s a spaz. He competes with jump cuts and loud (explained) noises, so we get nice and faked out every once in a while. The family owns a cat, of course, so that it can be used in the “It Was Only The Cat!” device, which has been a reliable employer of cats since the early days. We cut between the various cameras, so someone obviously edited this movie within its own universe, but who? Why? Sometimes Alex brings her MacBook with her to investigate noises, which is unlikely, but bully for the filmmakers, because now we can cut away from the static setups in the kitchen and bedrooms and go to frantic handheld footage. Congratulations to cinematographer Doug Emmett, by the way, who must have the easiest job in show business.
The rest of the plot if pretty much what you expect. The demon moves chairs, opens garage doors, throws around toys, and otherwise makes small use of what you’d imagine would be limitless power. He has Robbie in his thrall and seems intent on luring little Wyatt to the cause, for reasons that are unexplained, until they are, but I was happier when they weren’t, because the explanations are, I think, a massive cheat, creating open questions that are engineered to wedge the door open for Paranormal Activity 5, 6, 7, and spin-offs, because this thing will never get tired, except it totally will and has already.
Like the others, the movie alternates between scenes of demon nocturnal activities and then daytime scenes where the characters interact and stuff. These secondary moments are like the dialogue scenes in a porn film: they don’t show the film playing to its strengths, and it’s not what we came to see, but it’s nice of them to go through the motions and separate the things that actually interest us. There’s a subplot about the parents going through marital troubles, which reminds us of the disintegrating relationship in PA1, and creepy kids with remind us of 3, and some gags which have been used repeatedly in the series. This film even reminds us early on that the demon is capable of throwing people around like a rag doll, so when he does it again, how are we supposed to react other than “Yup, he can do that. Seen it.”
The problem with most horror sequels is that as soon as they exist, the horror has to evolve from a spectral, unknowable force into a palpable character with motivations and explanations. Look at Freddy, Jason, Pinhead, the Alien, Michael Myers, Jaws, Pazuzu, etc. As soon as a sequel comes, what once seemed like an unstoppable threat now feels tamed and domesticated, with weird hang ups. A frequently-used trope is where the monster now targets people related to those he killed last time, for reasons that are never persuasive. It just gives you the idea of a ghost who has patiently read his script and will perform it like a good little soldier. What’s scarier, a demon who seems to do what he wants, or one who’s clearly waiting for his big cue?
There are a lot of questions that go unanswered in Paranormal 4. Questions like “Where’s Hunter?” “What’s the deal with Katie?” “What does the demon want now?,” etc. One of these questions we get an answer to, but it only leads to more questions. What’s bothersome is that these blanks aren’t artistically placed to induce dread. They’re logic holes that are left open to be solved by future installments, with all the storytelling responsibility of a round-robin played by ten-year-olds. This franchise-minded bean counting has derailed several movies this year like Prometheus and The Amazing Spider-Man, as they operate under the principle of “Despite this being not very good, we know you’ll see the sequel, suckers.” Remember when movies used to stand alone and be the result of people trying their hardest, and weren’t cynically programmed to be like trading cards, where you had to buy the whole set? How many Paranormal Activity movies do we need before we actually get a clue as to what’s going on now? And how many entries will it be after the one in which audiences give up caring?
The actors do what they can with pretty repetitive material. After about the seventeenth scene showing characters investigating a downstairs noise in underwear and bare feet, I stopped fretting about ghosts and started worrying about tiny pieces of glass trapped in the carpet somewhere. The actors do a decent job of being surprised by the appearances of sudden figures and objects. They truly did convince me that they had no idea what was waiting for them in each scene, and since we in the audience all know what’s about to happen, let’s give them some credit. Kathryn Newton makes the biggest impression and she’s fine. I look forward to seeing her in a role where her sleeping habits aren’t plot points.
On some level a movie like this will always work, because loud noises are scary. But give us a break. It’s clear to me that Paranormal Activity is now a brand that will be run into the ground in the next half-decade, and that’s a shame. I liked Paranormal Activity; it was a fun little ride. But Paranormal 4 is like your fourth time through the very same haunted house. Please, mister. Show me something new.