Once again, hand-held cameras and ordinary suburban homes attempt to scare the bejeesus out of you in Paranormal Activity 4, a shaky entry in the Paranormal Activity franchise.
The movie opens with clips of previous Activitys and reminds us that Katie (Katie Featherston) is still whereabouts unknown with her nephew Hunter, the toddler she walked off with at the end of the second movie.
That was some five or so years ago in southern California, now (2011), we’re in Henderson, Nev., and watching Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) play soccer and have a picnic with teenage sister Alex (Kathryn Newton) and mom Holly (Alexondra Lee). Dad Doug (Stephan Dunham) shows up late, setting up one of the two main household tensions — fighting parents (which can really distract one’s attention away from, say, a malevolent being setting up residence in the kid’s bedroom closet). The other, more minor, household tension, this one between the parents and Alex, is the near constant presence of Ben (Matt Shively), her boyfriend. When Ben isn’t hanging over at her house, he and Alex are often video chatting (which is a handy way of having someone stare straight at the camera and offer exposition).
Into this affluent, somewhat stressed household comes Robbie (Brady Allen). We first see Robbie, dressed in gray and always looking slightly off, hanging out on the sidelines of Wyatt’s game. Later, he wanders over to the family’s house. He is the son of the single neighbor, we learn, and when his mom has to go to the hospital, he comes over to stay with Alex and Wyatt’s family. From the beginning Alex is a little weirded out by Robbie — he’s an odd child who they don’t really know very well. And then, Ben shows her something even stranger about Robbie. Apparently, Ben’s computer records all his video chats. After leaving the program on one evening after a chat with Alex, he records her sleeping and catches Robbie coming in her room and being creepy around her. Slowly, with the help of computers set to record all over the house, they start to pick up other things — flashes of images, strange noises and, thanks to Kinect, a shadowy presence near Robbie.
Naturally, no amount of Alex trying to tell her parents about these things convinces them that anything’s happening. And slowly, Wyatt seems drawn in to Robbie’s strange world and whatever secrets he’s keeping with Robbie’s “imaginary” friend Toby.
The upper-middle-class new-construction settings of these movies have always been one of the best parts of about how this movie builds suspense. You don’t expect a spooky ghost demon to mess with you while you’re looking for a snack in your brush aluminum refrigerator. Paranormal Activity 4 keeps up this sense of terror. Little touches like the use of the Kinect and its spray of green dots (to track movement in front of it) are nice, bringing the thing that goes bump in the night (and how we detect it) into modern life.
The other neat structural aspect of these films is the way the camera’s work. Sometimes, we’re seeing a shot being directed by a character — Alex filming Wyatt’s game or Alex and Ben chatting with each other. Sometimes, though, we’re seeing just whatever comes in front of the camera, as in the surveillance computers Ben and Alex set up all over the house. We in the audience are then tasked with finding the spooky but often subtle thing, seeing the chandelier shake or watching the cat appear to run away from something. It keeps your eyes stuck to the screen in a way they aren’t always in a shot that is focusing in on the thing it wants you to see.
With these usual tricks, the first half, maybe even first two-thirds of this movie offers the enjoyable suspense we’ve come to expect from the franchise. But toward the end, as the puzzle of the plot comes together, the movie starts to fall apart. What is the end game of the shadowy thing that has been following Katie and her family throughout the four films? The “spooky thing is going to get us” premise, which worked just fine in the first movie, has been expanded upon in subsequent movies to include possessions and witches and whatnot and each time it has been fleshed out, the “ghost story” aspect of these movies has felt a little weaker and a little less interesting. Being terrified by otherworldly noises in a distant part of your house is relatable; a family curse about demons and witches is, at least as presented here, just silly. And so, as we built toward the part of the movie that should be the most scary, the most keep-you-up-at-night, things start to get sillier and you’re just as likely to laugh as to clutch your arm rest.
Paranormal Activity 4 is an OK entry in the franchise but it also shows the frayed edges of this four-movie-long story. A fun concept that was nicely stretched into a solid sequel and an entertaining prequel now feels like it’s being drawn out unnecessarily for at least two more films (a fifth movie is planned, according to various media reports and there’s also some talk about a spinoff franchise hinted at in some post-credits sequence I didn’t stick around for). It’s been a good run, Paranormal Activity creators, but now it’s time to take that innovative approach to suspense and horror and do something else. C+
Rated R for language and some violence and terror. Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, Paranormal Activity 4 is an hour and 35 minutes long and distributed by Paramount Pictures.