Review: 'Paranormal Activity 4' Just Bores with Some Normal Activity
by Jeremy Kirk
October 19, 2012
There were such high hopes for Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman taking over the Paranormal Activity franchise. Their mythology building and creativity made Paranormal Activity 3 as surprising as their first film, Catfish. But a year after PA3, the handheld cameras turn on and the hauntings start up again for Paranormal Activity 4, the latest annual check-in with weird Katie and her demon friend. Four films in and the series is tapped, grasping frantically at inventive scares to latch onto, fake or genuine, and the thud when it lands is louder than a heavy hoof against hardwood floors. Not even that is scary now.
Eschewing the sideways plot device or taking another prequel even further back to show cave drawings of the demon in question, Paranormal Activity 4 starts as a standard sequel, showing us tidbits from the second film to catch us up on Katie and her nephew Hunter, who she's just abducted. From there it moves to a different city, a different family, and a whole new slate of doors opening on their own, kitchen utensils flying around the room, and creepy shapes moving around somewhere in the background. The scares are typical. Even less went into creating an engaging narrative.
This time around our focal character is Alex, a teenager living with her parents who would rather not speak to each other than get into another of their commonplace arguments. She lives with her parents and younger brother, Wyatt, and everything is going suburban happy until the next-door kid, Robbie, becomes friends with Wyatt and introduces him to his imaginary friend. We all know how imaginary friends go in these kinds of stories, don't we? It's not just that Robbie is a strange kid, standing and staring at people and wearing socks under his sandals. His presence brings seemingly supernatural occurrences into Alex's home, who, unable to turn to her distracted parents for help, takes comfort in knowing her boyfriend, Ben, knows just as much about recording security footage as he does one-liners.
The one-liners are important for Paranormal Activity 4, which ends up being the funniest film in the series thus far. Ben's jokes and actor Matt Shively's delivery notwithstanding, this entry into a franchise which boasts shocking scares that has audiences terrified to go home has quickly devolved into a cavalcade of fake jump scares. Joost and Schulman have that aspect down to a science, and a majority of Paranormal Activity 4's jumpier moments come with little payoff more than a quick laugh. They even throw in two, count them, two cat scares. In 2012.
But that should be an indication of where the actual scares come with this movie. Yes, the doors open by themselves. Yes, creepy shapes move around in the darkness of the background and in the night vision, green-starred room where the family keeps their Kinect. Okay, that part is kind of cool, and the director's grab hold of the idea like they did the notion of strapping a camera to an oscillating fan in Paranormal Activity 3. Beyond that, though, the jumps here are paint-by-numbers typical, an assumed belief from the filmmakers at work here that the audience has already been through this three times before. What's a fourth time for good measure?
There's little added to the mythology of the series, Katie, once again played by Katie Featherston, showing up sporadically to drive the narrative involving Robbie, Wyatt, and whatever the hell is going on forward. Little care is given to Alex or her family, and Joost and Schulman along with screenwriter Christopher Landon - He's written all the sequels - seem more invested in the rules behind these hauntings and the strange cult world they introduced in the last film. Twists and left turns come up, one central twist that is as confusing as it is unwarranted. It's not very well explained, either, and the blink-or-you'll-miss-it excuse for a third act can be chalked up to something they'll get around to explaining next year with Paranormal Activity 5.
Hopefully, by that time, they'll have thought up a good reason for their characters to film everything. Not much thought or care seems to have gone into explaining the found footage aspect to the film. At this point, characters apparently don't need to justify why they're filming everything or why they're only reacting to scary things when they appear in front of the camera's view. As long as it's shaky and "scary" enough, audiences won't question silly concepts like logic. Trying to picture how characters hold these cameras while evading demon death is one source for a few laughs.
Paranormal Activity 4 is a long slip from the tension achieved with its most recent predecessor, and even that was a far cry from the original. That's why they call them "originals." At this point, the Paranormal Activity franchise is just a name, the scares and development of its overall story hitting the same notes to the point of frustrating tedium. It's unfortunate there isn't enough originality in today's horror genre to keep a fourth Paranormal Activity movie from even getting made, but, just as expected, the franchise that once had audiences terrified to go home now bores them in the multiplexes. The theaters are once again haunted, and those scares keep getting more and more normal.
Jeremy's Rating: 3 out of 10