At first glance, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 seems to offer evidence that, despite the filmmakers' best intentions, the indubitably effective formula of the original PARANORMAL ACTIVTY has run out of ectoplasm. A closer look, however, suggests that this third sequel is a daring formal experiment, one that seeks to answer the question: How far can we run this franchise into the ground before the rubes stop paying to be disappointed?
A harsh assessment? Not really. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY takes all the weaknesses of the original and magnifies them exponentially, while reducing the strengths to ephemeral puffs of smoke that waft across the screen from time to time as vague reminders that, six years ago, this stuff used to be scary.
And that really is the crux of the matter. Forget the repetitive narrative, dull characters, stupid actions, and complete inability to create a convincing "real" world for the supernatural to overturn; PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 is a bore from start to finish, seldom generating any suspense and almost never overwhelming you with the convincingly uncanny aura of dread that to a large extent cloaked the original film's flaws like a funeral shroud.
Perhaps it is not fair to expect PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 to equal the suspense and shocks of the original, but the film fades even in comparison to the previous sequels. Neither PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 nor PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 advanced the narrative in any interesting way (in fact, both pile on the absurdities), but at least they managed to deliver their share of interesting and effective variations on the supernatural scare techniques established in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.
Not so this time out. For those who care, the story centers on pretty blonde teen Alex (Kathryn Newton), whose family rather foolishly takes in Robbie, the creepy kid next door, after his Aunt Katie is taken to the hospital. It's no secret that Robbie (Brady Allen) and Katie (Katie Featherston, doing her possessed shtick again, in case you didn't get tired of it two films ago) are the missing pair from the end of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2, so it's only a matter of time - far too much time - before things go bad for Alex.
Rather too much like the previous week's release from Blumhouse Productions, Sinister, it turns out that demonic forces are trying to turn a child toward the dark side, but you can bet there is no Obi-Wan around to balance the battle. As bad as Sinister is, at least that film managed to set its microcosm (a family in a haunted suburban home) within a large (if mostly suggested rather than seen) context that suggested the story was taking place within a believable world.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4, conversely, amplifies the problem of the original, which seemed to take place inside a bubble. It simply goes without saying, at this point, that there is no such thing as social services to take care of Robbie instead of handing him off to a neighbor that doesn't even know his guardian. Nor does the trauma within Alex's home impinge on an outside world: there will be no visits from school officials worried that her sleepless nights are impacting her classroom performance. There is no network of friends or acquaintances, no one to run to for help, nothing.
The sole, mildly interesting innovation here is the use of computers instead of security cams to document the "paranormal activity." This occasionally helps to explain why characters are filming stuff when they should have other priorities (such as: run like hell and get out of the house!), because there are actually a few believable moments when Alex is communicating live with her boyfriend over the Internet, trying to show him what's going on that is freaking her out. Sadly, this strategy doesn't kick in until a couple reels into the running time (up till then, it's just good luck that a camera is pointing in the right direction at the right time). And towards the end, the pretense is simply dropped, when (SPOILER ALERT) Alex is apparently shooting her own demise with her cell phone instead of dialing 911 (END SPOILER).
We're also left to wonder about computers that never go into sleep mode while filming 24 hours a day and that automatically switch to night-vision mode whenever the lights turn out. And why are we told that the demon doesn't like being watched, even though the first PARANORMAL ACTIVITY was based on the idea that attention fed and strengthened the unseen presence. Most of all, we wonder why we're in the middle of another "Ignorant Plot," with characters who do not know what is going on - even though they are recording the evidence 24/7! Late in the film, when Alex's father offers to take her out to dinner to discuss what is happening, she agrees, like a typical movie idiot. Um... Alex, honey, why not pick your damn laptop and show your dad the video of yourself hovering over the bed like Linda Blair in THE EXORCIST?
But it's not as if this matters, since drama and credibility are no longer what the the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies have on their minds; the scenario is just an excuse to string together the spooky set pieces, which in this case are starting to get tired and more than a bit rote. There is one nice bit with a knife that flies up out of screen, leaving us biting our nails, wondering when it will come back down. There are a couple decent jump scares, and one death is brutal and unexpected enough to generate a shudder.* But the disquieting frisson of fear that raises the hairs on the back of your neck? Forget it - that's just the theatre's air conditioning kicking in.
After the anti-climactic climax, diligent psychic investigators may torture themselves further by sitting through the credits, after which they will be "rewarded" with a brief epilogue, consisting of nothing much. A subjective camera wanders into a botanica in a Latino neighborhood, only to be chased out by a proprietor, who might be taken for a witch. What are we to take away from this? Will PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 5 leave white suburbia behind? Maybe those ethnic minorities with their superstitious practices would be better prepared to ward off spooks? This doesn't sound particularly promising, but at this point, almost anything would be an improvement.
- *As with SINISTER, whose most memorable image of horror is its motion poster, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4's best spook scene is not in the film itself. In this case, it's the trailer, which offers a few tantalizing glimpses of terror, without forcing us to sit through an hour-and-a-half running time.