Friday, October 19, 2012


In case you haven’t been paying attention, Paranormal Activity, the very scary and wildly successful 2009 low-budget horror movie about a haunted house and the young couple living in it who decided to set up cameras to capture the evidence, has turned into an annual event. After two sequels, which in fact served as prequels that backed further and further away from the original haunting to find different vulnerable characters filming their homes at all hours, we’ve arrived at Paranormal Activity 4, the first since the first to take place in roughly present day and move the whole – at this point nearly lumbering – thing forward. Now, the narrative can has been kicked down the road a tiny bit.

What’s most surprising is how little that seems necessary at this point. After faltering with the mildly disappointing Paranormal Activity 2, producer-creator Oren Peli handed the reigns of the franchise to Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Their Paranormal Activity 3 is quite possibly the best movie that this concept can sustain, a movie of big scares and shocking, seamless effects, with sharp performances of sympathetic characters and inventive, playful maneuvering of the franchise’s tropes. With 4, Joost and Schulman return, but somehow in the interim their handling of the premise has grown irritating and played-out. Instead of using the locked-down camera angles and quietly accumulating dread for a good mix of suspense, humor, and scares, the movie feels tired, at once too much and not enough.

In typical P.A. fashion, the movie introduces us to a normal suburban family, living in a house that’s suddenly filled with things that go bump in the night. A little boy (Aiden Lovekamp), his teenage sister (Kathryn Newton) and her boyfriend from across the street (Matt Shively) are the ones who notice weird noises and strange movements and decide to set up cameras to capture the action. (This family has, rather conveniently, something like a half-dozen MacBooks around the house.) This time we get Skype chats and iPhones added to the mix of video sources, as well as a novel use of an Xbox’s Kinect motion sensors that somehow works to both reveal creepy disembodied movement and make it all seem so depressingly tangible. Instead of real innovation, these new sources of footage merely recycle the techniques of the preceding films to lesser effect.

All of this allows for the typical long-stretches-of-still-silence that is so familiar from the series, but unlike the third film, which put objects like an oscillating fan or a sheet to great visual effect, this film grows static in ways that feel like missed opportunities. I was ready for a big scare, or at least a bit of visual trickery, when a refrigerator door blocks most of the frame on several occasions, but no such luck. Rather than building creative illusions and eerie how’d-they-do-that freakouts around likable characters, we’ve got a generic bunch of mildly curious people wondering why sometimes they hear footsteps in an empty house or why the creepy kid (Brady Allen) across the street is so insistent that his imaginary friend has it out for his neighbors. There’s no sense of build or connection between the low-functioning scares.

After something like 70 minutes of sporadic sudden noises and quick movements, any one of which would be just about the least scary thing in any of the previous Paranormal Activity movies, there’s the typical climactic explosion of malevolent psychic energy, only this time it’s pushed so far that it’s loud, sustained, and over-the-top. This is clearly an attempt to fold large pieces of the narrative of the previous three together – the brief return of the possessed Katie (Katie Featherston) makes that intent more than clear – but it’s a nice try that falls flat. It’s an attempt to hint at explanations and provide big splashy shocks with people flung this way and that, sudden deaths, and all manner of abrupt appearances and rapid movements. But it’s such an overwhelming pile-up of nonsense that it’s underwhelming. The final image is most shocking for how completely miscalculated it feels, expanding the scope of it all to a comical extent. I still have a great deal of affection for this series, so the good news is that this fourth installment is not irreparably, franchise-killing bad. It’s simply the least effective of its kind, functional without working up the energy or imagination to really entertain.

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