REVIEW: Familiar But Fun Paranormal Activity 4 A Fourth To Be Reckoned With
Because the Paranormal Activity movies are defined by their structure rather than by a visible monster or recurring lead characters or surroundings, it's the filmmaking that ends up having to evolve and change to set each new installment apart rather than, say, the mythology. You're got the limited location, the slow burn, the surveillance gear, the demonic hijinks — it's what's done with these elements that distinguishes one film from the next, a fact that makes the franchise interesting technically even if its versions of things that go bump in the night don't do much for you.
[Read Movieline's interview with Paranormal Activity producer Jason Blum]
I have to admit, they've managed to grow on me. The ingenuity required to work within the restraints of this dictated form of spookiness while coming up with new scares makes for some clever uses of space, timing and the way things are arranged in the frame. The original Paranormal Activity laid out the minimalist rules, while the second and weakest of the bunch upped the camera set-up to a full home security system. The third, which brought in Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, jumped back to the late '80s and older tech, including one ingenious bit of DIY on the part of the main character in which a camcorder mounted on the base of a rotating fan panned back and forth between the open kitchen and dining room of the haunted house.
Joost and Schulman have returned for this fourth installment, which brings things closer to the present day and chooses for its weapons webcams, smartphones and an only mildly product placement-y Xbox Kinect. While, as in all of the installments, the filming doesn't entirely make sense — there are inevitably scenes in which no rational person would continue holding up a camera — Paranormal Activity 4's killer shot is the surprisingly effective and familiar one of a person looking directly into a laptop while video chatting.
Teenage Alex (the Taylor Momsen-esque Kathryn Newton) likes to shoot herself and her family with her phone and to Skype with her goofy boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively). Whether she's leaning over it in bed or carrying it with her through the house while talking, her use of the built-in webcam represents a mundane but constant vulnerability — her attention is on the screen, but we're aware of all the space behind her and the things happening in it.
Alex and her six-year-old brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) live in Henderson, Nevada. When something happens to the single mom who lives across the street, her creepy son Robbie (Brady Allen), who's about Wyatt's age, comes to stay with them until she's out of the hospital. Their parents are going through a rocky patch in their marriage and are therefore too busy to pay much mind to the increasingly strange goings-on in the house following Robbie's arrival, but Alex is very aware and gets Ben to rig up all the laptops to automatically record in her room, in Wyatt's, in the kitchen and in the living room. And before you know it, "Night #1" is flashing on screen, things slowly start to go to hell and we begin to get hints at how what we're seeing ties into the earlier films.
Nothing that disturbing ever happens in the Paranormal Activitys, which is part of the franchise's appeal — it crafts its frights out of its everyday suburban trappings, from doors creaking open or slamming shut by themselves to household items crashing down from places they shouldn't be, or moving by themselves. The Kinect, while promising, does end up being a bit of a disappointment — the infra-red tracking dots illuminate the room and, inevitably, the occasional supernatural being within it when the lights are off, but the effect is more novel than creepy, like a demon-tracking disco ball.
The film is heavily reliant on jump scares, but its best moments are the ones before them, when the tension builds without the benefit of escalating music to queue you in to the approaching shock. Instead, there's that high-pitched sound, like a monitor left running, a fitting signal of trouble considering the way the technology used by the characters to document their lives so frequently outlives them.
Many of the elements in Paranormal Activity 4 are familiar — the spooky children talking to the not-so-imaginary imaginary friend from Paranormal Activity 3, the words on the door from Paranormal Activity 2, and even Katie (Katie Featherston) from the original make an appearance. But while the film breaks no new ground, it does manage the giggly shocks that make this franchise so much fun to see with a rowdy midnight movie crowd. The fact that there's so little space for an explanation for what's happening — though we get more hints of witchy organizations and rituals here — has given the franchise an unexpected vitality. Who needs to delve into the stultifying details of who's possessed by what and why? Like the diabolic force bedeviling the characters as they sleep, these things are better and more effective when left vague.