Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)

Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the first three Paranormal Activity films, but I’ve avoided spoiling too much about Paranormal Activity 4 itself (until the Stray Observations – read those at your own risk!)

Back when it first received a wide release in 2009, the original Paranormal Activity was a breath of fresh air. Compared to the 5-year old Saw series, for instance, its thrills and scares were generated not by the amount of blood onscreen but by the unseen terrors that it set off in our imaginations. The found-footage genre wasn’t exactly new at that point (having already been used in, for instance, REC and Cloverfield), but it hadn’t reached the seemingly ubiquitous status that it has now. Audiences responded and the film grossed nearly $200 million worldwide. Because of that huge success, there’s been a new Paranormal Activity movie released every October since, and 2012 is no different, bringing us Paranormal Activity 4.

Paranormal Activity 4 follows the events of the second film and the mythos of the third. Taking place 5 years after the first two films, in which Katie became possessed, murdered her family, and kidnapped her nephew Hunter, the fourth film follows a suburban family consisting of siblings Alex (Kathryn Newton) and Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) and parents Doug (Stephen Dunham) and Holly (Alexondra Lee). Teenaged Alex is the audience surrogate for most of the film, her Skype chats with boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively)  providing most of the film’s footage.

Things start to get spooky after the parents take in a neighborhood child, Robbie, a six-year old played by Brady Allen with all the “creepy little kid” elements that you’d expect. He stares with dead eyes, talks of otherworldly things in a very serious tone, and pops up in places he shouldn’t be. The fact that these parents, inattentive as they are, let this little creeper stay with their children is entirely unbelievable; but then, so is the fact that Alex walks around with her webcam everywhere, and the fact that she and Ben are able to install cameras all over the house at the drop of a hat. Basically, all the motivation in this movie is convoluted, but it’s something you’ll have to get over and accept if you want to enjoy it.

And enjoy it you can, as much as any other Paranormal Activity film. If you liked the first three, you’re bound to like this one. If you hated those films, then you should know better by now. Things fly to and from the camera, shadows move eerily in the background, and low rumbles make characters investigate dark rooms. It’s all standard Paranormal fare, but it’s not ineffective at providing the ever-reliable jump scare. You can say what you want about this filmmaking style getting old, but you’ll have to say it between the scares that it creates so easily.

There are some cool new additions provided by PA4. The infrared dots emitted by the family’s Kinect provide some predictable but still-terrifying chills, and the lead teenaged actors (Newton and Shively) play the series’ most likeable characters yet. Their early high school flirtations are sincere and hilarious, making this film funnier than all of its predecessors by far. Although there aren’t a lot of scares throughout the first half of the film (a problem that plagued the second), it’s at least enjoyable watching these two try to figure out what’s going on with Wyatt and Robbie.

By time the movie gets rolling, though, it shifts its focus from the teens to the ridiculously inept parents, another pair of frustratingly skeptical characters common to these movies. Soon afterward, Katie shows up as Robbie’s mother, but instead of enhancing the film, her vacant stares and lumbering pace slow the movie down right when it should be at its most exhilerating. The big finale is appropriately sinister, but it goes too far with its penultimate shot, bringing the audience out of the zone with an absurd amount of demonic characters. As the credits begin to roll, your pulse will still be racing, but your brain will already be realizing that the movie you just watched wasn’t that good.

The fourth Paranormal Activity is closer in quality to the subpar second than the innovative original or terrifying third. Using webcams is a nice modernization of the style, and the actors are once again effective at portraying average people, but there’s not enough being added to the series’ worn-out tricks. It shouldn’t have to be said, but it’s true: Paranormal Activity 4 will appeal only to die-hard fans of the series. Lucky for me, I’m one of them.

Final rating: 6/10

–James A. Janisse

Stray Observations:

  • I saw this movie in a theater, which is really the best way to watch these films. You can just feel the tension build up and release amongst the crowd, and the group screams and nervous chuckles really prop up the film’s sometimes questionable set-ups.
  • That scene in the garage was straight-up inspirational and got a cheer from the crowd I was with. Alex was a great character in general, and I was glad they didn’t sexualize her too much outside that one (weird and out of place) levitating shot (it’d’ve been entirely inappropriate, seeing as the character and the actress are 15 years old).
  • I wish more would have come out of that butcher knife incident than just another opportunity to show the parents being blind to what’s happening.
  • The twist of Wyatt being Hunter instead of Robbie was muddled and poorly done, especially since Robbie himself disappears from the film shortly after. I’m sure I could find some explanation or some supernatural theory behind what exactly happened, but if I have to research it, it’s trying too damn hard.
  • That legion of possessed people / cult members on the street at the end was seriously disappointing. It was just copying the ending of the third film but making it worse. For shame.
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